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Neighbors fume over Tampa golf course pesticide treatment

Tampa Sports Authority plans to use the controversial chemical, Curfew, on three public courses

TAMPA — The list of coronavirus precautions at the Tampa Sports Authority’s golf courses is lengthy.

One golfer per cart. One customer at a time in the golf shop. No rental clubs available. Water coolers, ball washers, sand rakes in the bunkers and flags in the practice greens are all verboten.

But some residents in the Forest Hills neighborhood think the public health protections are too few.

They want a prohibition against the soil fumigant named Curfew at the Babe Zaharias Golf Course in north Tampa, particularly in this COVID-19 era of mask-wearing, social-distancing and work-from-home recommendations.

“It’s ludicrous,’’ said Robert Lawson, whose home abuts the third fairway. “If they do this and there’s a problem during the pandemic, it’s going to be really, really bad.’’

“It’s a probable human carcinogen and I think right now we already are paying for screwing up Mother Earth big time,’’ said Debra McCormack, who can see the seventh hole from her front yard.

Lawson. McCormack and a handful of others are not new to this fight. They’ve butted heads in the past with the Tampa Sports Authority over its use of Curfew to kill parasitic nematodes, a ringworm that can destroy the turf grass on the three city-owned golf courses.

A year-long battle ended in 2009 when the manufacturer at the time, Dow Agroscience, caved, telling the authority it wouldn’t follow through with a planned Curfew application because of the public opposition. In a statement, Dow said then it “will not place the applicator, itself, or the product in a volatile situation that could result in unfounded allegations, the unnecessary expenditure of regulatory resources or potential litigation."

About a half-dozen protesters picketed outside the Tampa Sports Authority's office at Raymond James Stadium in May 2017. The group opposed the authority's plan to apply the controversial pesticide Curfew at the Babe Zaharias Golf Course, which the Sports Authority manages, near Forest Hills. RICHARD DANIELSON | Times

But the turf treatment and the opposition resumed in 2016, including criticism that the authority provided incomplete or misleading notices to the public. In May 2017, some Forest Hills residents protested outside the sports authority’s offices at Raymond James Stadium carrying homemade signs reading, "Don’t Poison Us'' and "Don’t fumigate the Babe.'' There was no acquiescence then. The treatments went on as planned.

Last week, residents found out Curfew will be returning in 2020.

Related: Controversial chemical Curfew reemerges to teat infestatons

The authority mailed 990 notices to neighbors of the Babe Zaharias Golf Course telling them Curfew would be applied June 10. The authority also plans to use Curfew at the other two city-owned golf courses it manages, Rocky Point and Rogers Park. It hadn’t yet mailed notices to residents there because the treatment dates hadn’t been finalized, said Bobby Silvest, the authority’s vice president for marketing and communications.

The active ingredient in Curfew is 1,3-dichloropropene. Its warning label says it is suspected of causing cancer and can be fatal if swallowed and enters air passages. It also causes skin, eye and respiratory irritation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a probable carcinogen.

Silvest said the authority, over the past four years, has tried “numerous alternative methods ... to treat for nematodes with minimal success.’’ The authority’s maintenance contractor, ABM Golf Services, recommends Curfew “as the most effective option to treat for the infestation of nematodes.’’

Curfew is manufactured by Corteva Agriscience, formerly a division of DowDupont, that spun off into a standalone company last year. It’s been used in Florida on golf courses and sports fields since 2001. But Florida remains one of just five states — Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas are the others —- where Curfew is registered for use in the U.S.

Certified workers using specialized equipment inject Curfew into the soil and post warnings after treatment. After the application, the soil releases sweet-smelling gases. The course is closed to golfers for 24 hours as part of the treatment.

In prior years, Hillsborough County’s Environmental Protection Commission conducted air quality tests for 24 hours after the application and measured readings "well below the acceptable level,'' Silvest said. The air quality tests will be conducted again this year, he said.

Related: Tampa Council requests monitoring of pesticide application

This provides little comfort to those opposed to its use.

"If it could possibly give people cancer, then based on precautionary principles it should not be used at all. I am rabidly against killing people and especially killing taxpayers with their own damn money,'' said McCormack.

Lawson said he believed the Curfew gas made him ill back in the mid-2000s when no advance public notices were given to residents. Lawson took his concerns to the Florida Department of Agriculture, and the company that treated the golf course was fined for using the pesticide too close to homes. Initially, Curfew required a 100-foot buffer between the application area and occupied buildings, but in 2007, the state reduced the safety zone to 30 feet.

A golfer is shown on the Babe Zaharias Golf Course on March 25. It is scheduled to be treated with the pesticide, Curfew, on June 10. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Concerns go beyond air quality. The karst topography of the region makes groundwater susceptible to contamination, said McCormack. Karst topography is formed from soluble rocks like limestone dissolving, leaving sinkholes and underground caves as common features. Curfew’s warning label said it is not to be applied within 100 feet of a potable water well or the edge of a karst topographical feature like a spring or sinkhole.

"If the label restrictions for Curfew do restrict its use over areas of karst geology, this would include all of Tampa, north of Kennedy Boulevard,'' Mark Stewart, professor emeritus in the school of geosciences at the University of South Florida, wrote previously to Tampa City Council.

Not everyone is opposed. An announcement about the pending pesticide application posted Wednesday on the Forest Hills Neighborhood Association Facebook page drew few immediate comments.

"Thanks for doing what’s needed to care for the course,'' one woman wrote.

But another poster called it "irresponsible'' to apply a known respiratory irritant amid the concerns of COVID-19 respiratory illness.

Three years ago, Lawson said he left the neighborhood and stayed with family members for three days following the Curfew application. This time, he booked an Airbnb.

"This stuff is really dangerous,'' he said. "I’m dumbstruck.''

McCormack said she previously fled to a motel across town. But she’s not sure what to do now.

"During a pandemic,'' she said, "where can you go that is safe?''

This report includes information from Times files.