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State denies Harvard’s request to opt out of mosquito spraying

On July 12 the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs denied the town’s request to opt out of state-authorized pesticide applications. Last summer, state legislators passed a bill allowing the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board to conduct ground and aerial spraying anywhere in Massachusetts  if the commissioner of public health declares an elevated risk of mosquito-borne disease. These diseases include West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE).

The new law allows individual towns to request opting out of state spraying, as long as they provide the state with an alternative mosquito management plan by May 28. Harvard’s Board of Health submitted its plan, approved by the Select Board, in mid-May.

The environmental affairs office provided no reason for the denial in its notification email, only that its decisions were made based on each town’s historical risk, the size of its mosquito population, existing evidence of the virus, weather conditions, time of year, and the strength of its alternative plan. During the EEE outbreak of 2019, only one mosquito sample tested positive for EEE in Harvard, and there were no human cases. No mosquito samples in Harvard tested positive in 2020 or 2021 so far, but there is only one test site in Harvard, in Still River.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge told the Press he voted against the bill that gave the state expanded power to conduct spraying, which he described as “over the top.” He said he believes there are other ways to reduce the mosquito population that are more effective than widespread spraying and that increased spraying won support in the legislature last session because of a few high-profile cases of people contracting EEE. Eldridge was the only senator to vote against the bill, and it received unanimous support in the house.

The Board of Health discussed the denial at its July 13 meeting. Member Sharon McCarthy said the email was “quite disappointing,” and suggested that the Select Board write a letter of protest. Newly-elected chair Libby Levison disagreed, saying the town should ask the state how its opt-out proposal was scored and why it was denied. In a later email, Levison said the Board of Health has already drafted a letter to the environmental affairs office and sent it to the Select Board for approval. The Press emailed the EEA on July 15 to ask why Harvard’s request was denied and how many city or town opt-outs were approved but had received no response as of July 22. 

Individual property owners can request to opt out of spraying by submitting a form available at mass.gov/forms/request-for-exclusion-from-wide-area-application-of-pesticides. Requests go into effect 14 days after they are received and expire at the end of the calendar year. Unlike towns, individuals need only provide an address to opt out of spraying. The other difference between town and individual opt-outs is that the state will override property owner requests if the risk of mosquito-borne diseases rises to a public health emergency; towns will not be sprayed for any reason once their request is granted. 

As of July 22, the EEE and West Nile virus risk levels in every city and town in Massachusetts was either remote or low: Twelve mosquito samples in the state had tested positive for West Nile virus, and no samples had tested positive for EEE.  The state updates its online risk maps and sample results throughout the season at www.mass.gov/info-details/massachusetts-arbovirus-update. 

Residents can ask to be notified of spraying at least 48 hours in advance at mass.gov/forms/how-to-request-to-be-notified-of-an-aerial-spray-or-wide-area-emergency-operation-conducted. On days when spraying is planned, the Department of Agricultural Resources will post a map at massnrc.org/spray-map. Spraying takes place in the evenings, and the map is updated each morning to show which areas were sprayed.  More information about mosquito spraying is available at mass.gov/service-details/mosquito-control-and-spraying.

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