PEAKS ISLAND — Residents here have mustered their forces in the opening stages of what promises to be protracted war against the seasonal invasion of the browntail moth. Their goal is to eradicate the pest from the residential areas of the island.
At least 100 Peaks Island residents gather Tuesday night in their tiny community center to listen to the “experts from the big city” talk about the ups and downs of chemical warfare. But after a couple of hours of bickering, it’s hard to identify the islanders’ real enemy: the browntail moth, or each other.
“Anytime you get two people on each island together to discuss something, you will have a minimum of three opinions,” says Bob Cary, a resident of the island’s Back Shore.
The experts, as one islander calls them, are Jeff Tarling, arborist from the city of Portland; Dick Bradbury, a state entomologist (he deals with insects); and Jim Linnaen of the U.S. Forestry Service. The trio displayed a large map of Peaks Island that shows the most densely populated residential section as the proposed spray area. The battle plan is to spray pesticides from an airplane to kill the moths before they hatch. Islanders generally agree that the only good browntail is a dead browntail, but many balk at the use of the spray, Dimilin.
The browntail moth, Euproctis chrysorrhoea, has been plaguing New Englanders ever since it came to Massachusetts from Holland in 1897. In the past, it has spread east as far as Nova Scotia, but it has since receded, and for the moment it has settled in the islands of Casco Bay.
Islanders want to get rid of these noxious neighbors, because the moths shed tiny hairs which become airborne, causing severe rashes when they settle on bare skin. The hairs can also cause horrible respiratory problems if breathed into the lungs. Several victims have had to be hospitalized in previous years from exposure to the moths. Others avoid the islands altogether when the bugs are in bloom. When in caterpillar form, they have been known to cover entire houses with their millions of squirming bodies.
The experts have decided that Dimilin is the best pesticide for the job. But it is controversial because it does not discriminate — anything with chitin, which makes up the exoskeleton of some animals and insects, is affected.
“Dimilin will kill lobsters as quick as it will kill a browntail moth, if there’s enough of a concentration,” says Bradbury, the insect specialist. “It works on creatures that molt. That’s why it doesn’t work on people. That’s why it doesn’t work on birds.”
Nonetheless, Tarling asks that gardens be covered with vinyl tarps and that all pets be brought indoors while the aerial application is under way, a comment that kindles nervous laughter among the islanders.
One woman spoke up angrily as other residents expressed fears about their pets. The woman claimed that her son suffered extreme asthma as a result of the moths, and that he had to use a respirator to breathe.
“While you people are all worried about your cat … why don’t you think about the children who can’t breathe?” she snapped.
Bradbury and Tarling make no attempt to portray Dimilin as environmentally sound, but they claim it is more effective than other methods. The pesticides Sevin and Tempo, the bacteria B.t. and the fungus entomophaga aulicae all have been tried and have failed. They claim that manual clipping is too laborious, time-consuming and ineffective.
Because Dimilin poses a severe threat to the marine environment, it is illegal in Maine to apply it within 100 feet of a body of water. Much of Peaks Island consists of wetlands which cannot be sprayed, leaving only the residential area near the ferry terminal as a proposed target. Only with consent can property be sprayed. A total of 800 postcards, asking for consent, will be issued to people living within the spray zone.
“The state of Maine requires that we have written permission from everyone in the spray block to go on ahead with this project,” says Bradbury. “If you don’t get the cards back to us in a signed fashion, we have to take it as a `no.’ ”
Bradbury and Tarling explain that if the “yes” and “no” properties are too mixed, creating a “shotgun pattern,” then the whole project will have to be scrapped. No one will know the results until April 24, when all the cards are to be returned.
An older man who had been silent throughout the first two hours of the meeting brought the meeting to a close when, after asking which speaker worked for the U.S. government, inquired of Linnaen: “Am I correct in assuming that you work for the same government that used Agent Orange on the boys in Vietnam?”
The question stirred up disapproving groans from the other islanders. Linnaen declined to answer and the older man left the room. And as if on cue, the rest of the room rose up and left, even though there had been no indication that the meeting was over.
Holli Andrews, a Restitution Team member of Americorps was left with no audience to talk to. She was to announce that a group of teen-age first-time offenders would be coming to the island during April vacation week to “pay their debt to society” by clipping browntail webs on the Back Shore, where aerial spraying is not allowed.
Outside, a few stragglers are more than happy to offer their opinions.
“I don’t want our property sprayed,” says Ellen Tripp, who lives in the spray zone. “We don’t know the long-term effects. What’s it going to do to the good moths? And the butterflies? And all the other insects?”
On the other hand, Back Shore resident Bob Cary wants to use pesticides so badly that he and his neighbors have reached into their own wallets to hire a private company, which will be using Tempo. Cary doesn’t put much stock in the anti-Tempo sentiment.
“Do you like ham and eggs, or do you like eggs and ham?” asks Cary. “That’s the difference between these synthetic chemicals.”
Across the street at Will’s, the local watering hole, Rob deSousa, who lives on the edge of the spray zone, sits at the bar and contemplates aerial application.
“They’re not gonna do it,” says deSousa, “because there’s enough people who don’t want it.”