Daniel Ruth: Common sense could have spared Pinellas palms


You might want to think of this as the Pinellas County Public Works Department version of that WKRP in Cincinnati episode where for Thanksgiving, the hapless radio station general manager dropped live turkeys out of a helicopter over a packed shopping mall, wrongly believing the birds could fly.

In what should have been a routine maintenance assignment in March, workers were supposed to remove four sabal palmetto trees along Joe's Creek, which runs through several St. Petersburg neighborhoods and Kenneth City. Seems simple enough.

Yet by the time the employees finished the job, another 74 sabal palmetto trees had been poisoned to death. The warning label for the herbicide used to kill the trees, Garlon 4, specifically recommends against spraying it near water since it can be fatal to fish populations and can endanger groundwater and permeable soil.

Other than that, it's great stuff, especially on the rocks.

According to Pinellas officials, the workers who executed the trees made a "judgment call" in the field to take out the additional 74 sabal palmettos. It never dawned on them to ask for a second opinion from the higher-ups whether to extend the death warrants?

It's not as if those 74 extra trees on the hit list were an escape risk. Or consider that Joe's Creek is a 9,256-acre drainage basin that flows east to west through sections of St. Petersburg and Kenneth City before discharging into Cross Bayou. This isn't as if the county workers accidentally spilled some toxic stuff into a puddle on the side of the road.

Exercising some initiative is certainly an admirable trait. But when it comes to spraying toxic chemicals near water and risking fish kills and pollution of the surrounding area, exercising some common sense would also seem to be useful skill.

The massacre of Joe's Creek is now being investigated by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for potential environmental violations.

Given Pinellas County is a peninsula, one would think the county would follow the most stringent set of guidelines governing the application of toxic materials to deal with issues such as removing trees. But it doesn't.

As Tampa Bay Times reporter Mark Puente noted, Hillsborough County, Tampa and St. Petersburg all have more demanding policies governing the removal of trees than Pinellas County, requiring the issuance of permits to both government workers, as well as homeowners, contractors and developers to undergo a review process before beginning work.

Pinellas County self-permits maintenance projects, which may seem like a good idea until it isn't.

And that's troubling. You have to suspect this wasn't the first time county workers had so cavalierly applied nasty chemicals such as Garlon 4 to the Joe's Creek sabal palmettos. It was only the first time the practice was exposed.

How many other tracts of vegetation near bodies of water have been cleared by using Garlon 4, or some other potentially dangerous chemical, based on a 'judgment call" by county workers? And for how long has this practice been in place? Given the lax permitting process and little management oversight, we may never know for sure.

Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard said there needs to be better training and guidance for workers so that the Joe's Creek situation doesn't happen again. Good idea.

And can we begin the process of advising public works employees that while judgment calls have their place, before a worker decides to pollute a 9,256-acre watershed, it might be a swell idea to call the front office first.