Luzerne County official examining gypsy moth spraying options

By Jennifer Learn-Andes -
Walsh Waitkus - File photo

Wright Township resident John Hargraves described his community’s battle against gypsy moths during this week’s Luzerne County Council meeting in an effort to obtain county assistance with spraying in 2019.

“We’ve got trees all over the place that are just in disaster. It is a big public safety issue. I’ve had trees falling on my deck,” said Hargraves.

The Walden Park development area had two power outages from trees that fell due to gypsy moth erosion, he said. Hargraves said he spent thousands of dollars on failed spraying treatments administered from the ground and was forced to cut down 20 trees in his yard.

“I’ve got one tree left out in the front yard,” he said.

Hargraves said he and a few other volunteers went door-to-door to set up privately funded aerial spraying of 350 acres at Walden Park and surrounding areas this year, but he believes county involvement would make the group spraying process more efficient and save money. Property owners in his neighborhood are paying $70 each for the spraying, he said.

County Councilwoman Jane Walsh Waitkus agreed to spearhead a committee to review options to ward off gypsy moth caterpillars that cause widespread defoliation, although county officials are not making a firm commitment.

County Manager C. David Pedri noted municipal participation and financing may be needed if a proposed solution requires local government funding.

“Maybe we can do things together,” he said, noting the county is 890 square miles, with sizable rural areas.

Prior program

The county had participated in a state gypsy moth spraying program in 2016 after a spring 2015 outbreak of the pest caused a public outcry.

However, the county did not sign up for spraying in 2017 or 2018, in part due to the need to tie up a full-time staffer almost entirely to serve as gypsy moth coordinator fulfilling the program’s cumbersome requirements.

County Operational Services Division Head Edmund O’Neill said the county’s decision to abstain stemmed primarily from thorough research concluding property owners would be better off securing spraying on their own. The state’s program contains more restrictions on the size of minimum spraying zones and permissible tree cover and egg masses, he said.

Citizens and community leaders still had to canvas neighborhoods attempting to drum up interest in participating under the state program, O’Neill said.

Private property owners covered the cost of the state spraying, which ended up at $55 per acre in 2016. The state sprayed more than 3,000 acres of private property in 28 municipalities that year.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which oversees the program, required the spraying of a 500-foot buffer around each residence. Some property owners were interested but withdrew due to the cost.

The state is increasing minimum zones to qualify for next year’s spraying from 23 acres to 50, O’Neill said.

Few counties sign on

State spraying was performed in three counties this year — Lackawanna, Lehigh and Northampton — because the other 64 did not sign up, O’Neill said. Lackawanna and Northampton covered the cost of spraying both county-owned property and participating private residences, while Lehigh did not include private properties, he said.

The state ended up charging participants $27 per acre this year, but O’Neill cautioned it would have been significantly higher if more participated. The state does not pay toward the spraying, and the only offset that reduces the cost to private property owners is a federal subsidy that fell hundreds of thousands of dollars below the requested $500,000, he said.

O’Neill said the average cost for spraying outside the state program may range from $25 to $38 per acre — an estimate Hargraves characterized as too low.

Walsh Waitkus said she will meet with Hargraves, O’Neill, Wright Township Supervisor Matthew Howton and others to come up with a plan for council’s consideration because she does not believe officials can “keep kicking the can down the forest” in addressing the problem.

“I see them everywhere already,” she said of gypsy moths.

Walsh Waitkus Waitkus File photo

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.