The Journal News investigated the sale, distribution and use of pesticides in the state following a scandal at the Rye (N.Y.) Golf Club, where a contaminated batch of pesticide killed grass, causing 18 greens to be closed for three months. The Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park in Highmount, N.Y., as proposed, will be the state’s first organically managed golf course.
A mysterious green residue started coating golfers’ shoes last spring at Rye (N.Y.) Golf Club. Within weeks all 18 putting greens closed, and the Westchester County enclave fell into chaos. Members demanded thousands of dollars in refunds, threatening to sue the city-owned club as turf experts combed it for clues. The scandal ultimately triggered an investigation by the White Plains, N.Y., Journal News into the sale, distribution and use of pesticides.
Among the findings by the Journal News are:
- Gaps in oversight of millions of pounds of toxic pesticides applied at homes, businesses and golf courses in the Lower Hudson Valley.
- Pesticides’ health risks are heightened in Westchester and Rockland counties. They are among just six of 62 counties in New York that applied more than 1 million pounds of pesticides in 2010, the most recent state data available.
- There have been significant flaws in pesticide data collected over the past decade from golf courses, farmers, landscapers and pest-control companies in New York.
- Authorities failed to catch the potentially illegal sale of an unregistered pesticide at Rye Golf Club, and golf courses in other states, according to the exclusive probe of the chemical industry’s underbelly.
Judith Enck, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator in New York, described state and federal regulators as overwhelmed by the volume of pesticides flowing across the nation’s highways, the Journal News reported.
“The EPA takes the regulation of pesticides seriously, and if pesticides are improperly applied it can severely damage health and the environment,” Enck said. “There’s just so much product that is used every day that we are not everywhere.”
Still, The Journal News’ investigation found porous pesticide record-keeping, lax enforcement of environmental protection laws and public-health risks spanning several states, including New York, the Journal News reported.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation refused to discuss the matter, and noted it is trying to correct pesticide data errors while taking steps to improve reporting, such as shifting from paper to electronic reporting. “The NYSDEC works with the pesticide businesses to fix as many of these errors as is feasible,” agency spokesman Kevin Frazier said.
Amid efforts to improve pesticide oversight, chemical companies face a growing list of lawsuits seeking to link them to serious illnesses, such as cancer. One high-profile lawsuit was filed by Rich Walsh. His father, Thomas, died of leukemia at 56 years old in 2009, after working on Pennsylvania golf courses for more than 30 years, the Journal News reported.
“My dad was more than a father, he was my best friend, and I miss him dearly and I feel like these companies murdered him,” the son said.
The Walsh lawsuit seeks $5.75 million from a list of chemical companies that made and sold 44 different pesticides handled by the father, the Journal News reported.
At Rye Golf Club, investigators blamed the dead grass on a contaminated batch of pesticide, and its manufacturer, Tessenderlo Kerley, paid $2.5 million to settle Rye’s complaints about the marred golfing season.
Meanwhile, hazards tied to pesticides endanger heavily populated and golf-dense communities, such as Westchester and Rockland, with higher usage than rural and agricultural counties, state data show. Out of 62 counties, Westchester ranked third-highest in pesticide use, at 2.26 million pounds in 2010. Rockland was sixth-highest, at about 1 million. They are also among the highest pesticide-users in terms of gallons of product, the data show, the Journal News reported.
All of the highest-use counties were golf-course dense, with Suffolk on Long Island topping the list at 5 million pounds. Monroe County, which includes the city of Rochester, ranked second at 2.82 million. The top six counties used nearly 14 million pounds of pesticides, more than half the 24.5 million total statewide in 2010, the Journal News reported.
More recent pesticide data is unavailable because many commercial applicators filed inaccurate or illegible records, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation is scrambling to correct errors, which drew criticism from chemical watchdog groups, the Journal News reported.
“The illegal uses of pesticides that are going on that are not caught because of inadequate oversight are adding fuel to a burning fire that is raging across this country on golf courses, and in agriculture and homes and community parks,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, an anti-pesticide group.
Rye Golf Club, like nearly 900 other golf courses in New York, used pesticides with little government oversight. Records detailing a potentially illegal pesticide sale at Rye’s club, and misuse of chemicals, came to light after its course superintendent, Charles Lafferty, couldn’t hide the dying grass any longer, the Journal News reported.
When questioned by authorities, Lafferty said he improperly used the green-colored pesticide to hide dying grass before a golf tournament, resulting in the mystery residue that initially triggered suspicion last spring. While the contaminated pesticide batch was responsible for killing the putting greens, Lafferty admitted to a violation for misusing pesticides and was fined $500, the Journal News reported.
Addressing lax regulation, Feldman, of the anti-pesticide group, noted toxic chemicals are inherently dangerous. He pointed to the risk of pesticides leaching into the ground and contaminating drinking water, even if properly used, the Journal News reported.
“Pesticides are inadequately regulated to provide us with the protection that we need,” he said.
Armor Tech ALT 70, the pesticide in question in the Rye scandal, is under investigation by the EPA in Pennsylvania, one of nine states where at least 20 golf courses were ruined by a contaminated batch of the chemical, the Journal News reported.
Tessenderlo Kerley, an Arizona-based company that manufactured the pesticide in question in Rye, declined to comment for this report, citing a confidentiality agreement tied to the Rye settlement.
While federal law requires reporting of pesticide sales and use, state agencies handle most enforcement and regulation. Seeton Turf Warehouse, the United Turf Alliance distributor that sold unregistered Armor Tech ALT 70 to Rye Golf Club, is based in New Jersey. New Jersey regulators cited Seeton for two violations for failing to keep sufficient records of sales and properly label pesticides in 2013, enforcement records show. The violations were resolved this year without disciplinary action, the Journal News reported.
Federal regulators have failed to properly document why many pesticide violators received warnings or reduced penalties, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General found in 2013, and in some cases reductions appeared automatic without adequate justification, the Journal News reported.
Lying in a hospital bed, Thomas Walsh had just finished chemotherapy when his son delivered the tragic news: A doctor suspected pesticides caused his cancer. “I had to tell him, ‘The thing that you love to do the most, work on a golf course and play golf, that is what caused you to be here,’” said Rich Walsh, the son, recalling the conversation before his father died of leukemia in 2009.
The chemical companies’ attorneys either declined to comment or didn’t respond to calls and emails. They have denied that pesticides caused the death, and refuted testimony of scientific and medical experts testifying that the chemicals killed Thomas Walsh, court records show.
Companies involved in the lawsuit include Bayer, BASF, Dow, John Deere Company (Lesco), Monsanto, and Syngenta, along with distributors selling the 44 different pesticides named in the complaint, court records show, the Journal News reported.
Thomas Walsh worked on golf courses for more than three decades. Most of his career passed as a greenskeeper and superintendent. In 2004, Walsh bought Rolling Fields Golf Club, a public course in western Pennsylvania, where Rich Walsh is now a co-owner. The son plans to eliminate the course’s pesticides entirely and says chemicals are hardly being used currently, the Journal News reported.
“I don’t want my kids around (the pesticides), and I don’t know if I want to play golf if there’s people out there with hazmat suits,” Walsh said.
Anthony D’Amico, the attorney for Walsh, described pesticide lawsuits as similar to court cases that connected asbestos and cigarettes to millions of deaths, the Journal News reported.
“The exposure was proven and the disease was proven, and the link between the two has always been where the battle lies,” D’Amico said. “A lot of people are ill, and they don’t know why they’re ill, and pesticides could be the cause and they just don’t think about.”
Rockland Country Club has been trying to reduce pesticide use on its course since the late ’90s, but the transition has been a tough sell to some players. At one point, Matt Ceplo, course superintendent, set up educational displays in the clubhouse. He wanted to teach members about protecting plants and wildlife from pesticides on the sprawling 140-acre property in Sparkill, the Journal News reported.
Ceplo gathered foliage and caterpillars, built aquariums and put them in the ladies locker room. “Right off the bat they loved them, and there is something about the metamorphosis, where you’ve got the caterpillar, and it forms the chrysalis and then it forms the butterfly,” he said. “We built on that with all the other kind of plants that we felt have some kind of environmental benefit.”
Still, Ceplo found some golfers opposed the environmentally friendly turf-management plan when surveyed. “You’re always going to get the golfers who say they don’t care about that and want the pristine conditions,” he said.
While playability is a focus at the Rockland club, Celpo has kept up with new industry standards urging courses to mow fewer acres and spray less-harmful pesticides. “Thirty years ago you just mowed everything,” he said.
Some regulations and laws passed this year also recognized pesticides’ risks, though agricultural uses have seen more focus than homes, golf courses and other businesses. In April, the EPA updated worker-protection standards for agriculture, such as prohibiting work by children younger than 18 and expanding training programs, the Journal News reported.
In June, the federal Toxic Controlled Substances Act, which regulates every product sold nationally, saw its first update since being enacted in the 1970s. While public spaces are using fewer pesticides, the chemicals are a bigger problem on golf courses. Pesticide usage on New York courses, for instance, drew a lot of criticism after a scathing Attorney General’s Office report titled “Toxic Fairways” in the mid-1990s, the Journal News reported.
At the time, the average pesticide use annually at golf courses was 18 pounds per treated acre, about seven times higher than the 2.7 pound average in agricultural, the report found, and private country clubs generally used more pesticides than public golf courses. Some courses seem to have reduced pesticide usage since the 1990s, though data remains outdated or incomplete, the Journal News reported.
A separate report in the Journal News detailed the controversial development by Crossroads Ventures of the $365 million Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park in Highmount, N.Y., the state’s first organically managed golf course.
“We haven’t really focused on or concerned ourselves with the finances because we didn’t have an option,” said Jack Schoonmaker, project manager. “It was either come up with an organic management plan, or not have a golf course.”
The fate of such organic golf trailblazers, however, remains murky. All but a few of the nation’s 16,000 courses are leery of using lemon juice, seaweed and other environmentally friendly products to maintain pristine fairways and putting greens favored by golfers, the Journal News reported.
Kevin Franke, a turf-management specialist and Belleayre consultant, pointed to arguably the only true organic course, the Vineyard Golf Club on Martha’s Vineyard. He described it as a high-profile course held to almost unobtainable standards, the Journal News reported.
“People just like the buzz word of organic, and they say, ‘You can use it in your marketing,’” Franke said. “That’s all well and good for our marketing material, but if someone comes to your golf course and you have potholes on your greens and they can’t putt, that doesn’t do a whole lot of good for your marketing.”
The Vineyard club takes extreme measures, like flying in hungry Midwest grubs that feast on insects, to avoid using pesticides. Other techniques, such as nightly organic pesticide applications and morning fairway whipping to prevent mildew, have been fine-tuned since the course opened in 2002, the Journal News reported.
But Franke doubts if organic methods working on the coastal Massachusetts’ island will translate to the rugged Catskill wilderness. “It’s going to be a learning process, and we are going to be the guinea pig in New York state, but I’m not 100 percent sure the quality isn’t going to suffer,” he said.
Yet at packed town meetings about the Belleayre resort, Franke said activists and regulators touted the marketing power of organic. He countered many golfers judge a courses’ playability without thinking of its environmental impact. “Someone may say, ‘There are too many damn dandelions and weeds out there, and I can’t hit my ball in the fairway like I want to, so let’s go play somewhere else,’ ” Franke said.
The public Belleayre golf course also must compete against nearly 900 non-organic courses in New York. By contrast, the private Vineyard club has dues-paying members who support its environmental mission, the Journal News reported.
Schoonmaker is confident organic golf can work in New York. He noted professional golfer Davis Love III helped design the course despite strict regulations. “We put together a team of specialists that wrote this turf-management plan from the ground up, literally,” Schoonmaker said. “As time goes by and these become a more viable design, I think you’re going to see more people go organic.”
Belleayre’s organic golf course, called Wildacres, faces new strict regulations that underscore gaps in oversight of courses using toxic pesticides. At Wildacres, a committee of state officials and environmentalists will conduct annual reviews, including regular inspections, of the entire operation, according to the turf management plan.
In an effort to improve oversight, the five-member committee overseeing Wildacres will include a chairperson from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and someone from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the water reservoirs, the Journal News reported.
Two outside turf-management experts approved by the National Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group, will also sit on the board, along with Wildacres’ course superintendent, the Journal News reported.
The list of approved organic turf management products has 19 items. Some of the products read like a health-food shopping list. It includes corn gluten, fish emulsion, garlic oil/juice, horticultural oils, kelp/seaweed extracts, lemon/vinegar, lime and milky spore. Other items on the organic list are described as compost, organic fertilizers, beneficial insects, biopesticides, pyrethrin/pyrethrum, rock-dust minerals, beneficial nematodes, beneficial mircrobes, bacillus thuringiensis and neem, an oil derived from a tree, the Journal News reported.
The banned products list includes arsenic, tobacco and pesticides dispensed by automatic misting systems. Other prohibited chemicals are piperonyl butoxide, pyrethroids and all synthetic pesticides. Genetically modified products, ingredients or seeds are also banned, along with biosolids derived from sewage sludge or industrial waste, the Journal News reported.