Controversial pesticide re-emerges to treat Tampa Sports Authority golf courses

Rogers Park Golf Course in Tampa, seen here on March 4, 2015, was treated in June for a nematode infestation with a product called Curfew, which has caused concerns locally in the past when it was used. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times
Rogers Park Golf Course in Tampa, seen here on March 4, 2015, was treated in June for a nematode infestation with a product called Curfew, which has caused concerns locally in the past when it was used. OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Published February 11 2017
Updated February 12 2017

TAMPA — When infestations from a parasitic roundworm ravaged two golf courses last year, the Tampa Sports Authority turned to a familiar but controversial cure.

It's called Curfew, a soil treatment made by Dow AgroSciences.

It was the first time the TSA had used the pesticide since 2008, when its deployment at the Babe Zaharias Golf Course generated public outcry and accusations the chemical made a nearby resident sick.

With recent history as a reminder, staff moved cautiously. They approached the TSA board at its March 28 meeting with a five-point plan for using the chemical, including informing nearby residents.

But records show the communication was selectively delivered and included misleading information.

A letter sent to nearby homes by the TSA included a recommendation from an expert who told the Tampa Bay Times he never provided one. The TSA didn't inform some residents about the fumigation even though their homes were just as close to where the chemical was applied as residents who were notified. And most of the information sent to residents came straight from the chemical's maker.

Curfew is a restricted use pesticide in Florida, meaning it must be applied according to its label and by a licensed applicator. Its active ingredient, 1,3-Dichloropropene, has been used as a pesticide in agriculture for decades. It is applied a few inches below the surface as a liquid and emerges as a sweet smelling gas, completely eradicating nematodes — the parasite causing problems at the golf courses — from the area.

"This product is safe when applied per the label," said Eric Hart, president and CEO of the TSA. "They take so many precautions with it."

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also classifies 1,3-Dichloropropene as a probable carcinogen, meaning there's sufficient evidence that it can cause cancer. Those concerns pushed residents near Babe Zaharias to fight against its use eight years ago.

Now, as the Forest Hills course once again faces a nematode infestation, activists there are gearing up for a fight.

"I don't know why they expected it would be any different," said Debra McCormack, who helped lead the charge against Curfew in 2008. "The chemical composition has not changed."

•••

Early last year, more than 400 residents in the upscale waterfront neighborhood of Dana Shores received a letter saying the nearby Rocky Point Golf Course would be fumigated for nematodes. Included was a recommendation from one of the state's foremost nematode experts.

"Our contractor, ABM Golf Services, and Professor William Crow from the University of Florida, both agree that Dow AgroSciences Curfew fumigant is the most feasible option to treat the remaining infestation," according to the letter. "The Tampa Sports Authority agrees with their recommendation."

But Crow told the Times he never recommended Curfew to treat the nematode problem at Rocky Point. Instead, when Steve Hunter, a contractor with ABM who manages the course, asked Crow how to best attack its infestation, he suggested two softer chemicals, according to emails Crow provided.

When those didn't work fast enough, Hunter told Crow, "We are now looking to do Curfew. What would be the premium time to apply curfew or the soonest for the Tampa area?"

Crow said April to May would be best, a point included in the TSA's letter to residents.

"I don't make blanket recommendations about anything," Crow said. "That was news to me as far as putting my name on a letter."

TSA spokesman Bobby Silvest said the letter was not intended to suggest that Crow's recommendation was specific to Rocky Point's infestation. Rather, it was a reference to Crow's past remarks regarding Curfew as an effective treatment.

"We'll take that and hopefully make it clearer next time," Silvest said.

•••

The windows that face Rogers Park Golf Course in Chris Loy's East Veve Lane house remain closed at all times.

It's a precaution he took after concerns raised over Curfew's use at Babe Zaharias, one of three golf courses run by the TSA, a public agency that also operates Raymond James Stadium.

"I may not have time to fight it, but I'm not going to let it blow in my house either, whatever it may be," said Loy, a father of three.

Loy and his family were in Ohio when the TSA fumigated Rogers Park with Curfew on June 28. He was already gone by the time the notice arrived in the mail.

Many nearby residents had no notice at all. Only six homes near Rogers Park received letters from the TSA, according to the organization's records.

That compares to the 400-plus residents of Dana Shores that received advanced notice of the fumigation at Rocky Point.

Hart stressed that the TSA is not required by the city or county to notify residents when it fumigates. They reached out to Dana Shores through a neighborhood association as a courtesy.

"If I had a neighborhood association in that (Rogers Park) neighborhood, we would do the exact same process," Hart said.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, who represents the residents near Rogers Park, said Hart's reasoning is "not a good excuse."

"For you to not notify those houses that you're using something that could health-wise affect them, that's not a good excuse at all," Miller said. "It's easy to hang a door hanger and let them know what's going on."

TSA staff did not inform its board about its plans to fumigate Rogers Park at a publicly noticed meeting, as they did before applying Curfew at Rocky Point. Members of the board's golf committee were individually briefed, the TSA said, but not in a public forum.

Like the letter to Rocky Point neighbors, the six homes near Rogers Park were told Crow made the recommendation to use Curfew. Crow said he never had any conversation at all with the TSA or ABM Golf Services about Rogers Park.

In fact, the advice he offered to ABM about Curfew use — to spray during April and May, before Tampa's hot, humid summers set in — was not heeded at Rogers Park. At that time of year, Crow said, it's often "wasting your money" because the nematodes are buried too deep to reach with the chemical.

Curfew was applied for a second time at Rocky Point in September.

The TSA defended fumigating with Curfew in June and September, saying the results speak for themselves.

•••

Since the fumigations of Rocky Point and Rogers Park, several new nematode-abatement products have reached the market.

The TSA is researching whether one of these could work at Babe Zaharias, where nematodes are once again damaging the turf. They first made residents aware of the problem in December.

"We haven't done this in a gerbil tube," Hart said. "We want this to be perceived safely by the community and we are communicating."

TSA staff will meet with residents on Feb. 21 to discuss potential solutions, including Curfew.

"They have been up front with us," said Matt Torrence, president of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Association. "We're bringing everything we can that they provide us to our neighborhood base."

Still, he said, "Absolutely, there are people concerned about it."

Times Senior News Researcher John Martin contributed. Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] and (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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