Pesticide-Free Pilot at Santiago Hills Park in Orange Raises More Concerns

JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

The city of Orange seal.

Editors’ Note: This dispatch is part of the Voice of OC Youth Media program, working with student journalists to cover public policy issues across Orange County. If you would like to submit your own student media project related to Orange County civics or if you have any response to this work, contact Digital Editor Sonya Quick at squick@voiceofoc.org.

The city of Orange’s recently established pesticide-free pilot at Santiago Hills Park is not only triggering a growth in weeds. 

It’s fueling more community concerns over the city’s approach toward the use of pesticides at local parks. 

The city’s pilot program was initiated on Sept. 1 following an Aug. city council meeting where 13 people advocated for the eradication of pesticides in their community parks. Push back against pesticide use has generated more heat across the nation with recent cancer lawsuits against Monsanto, the manufacturer of Roundup which contains the herbicide glyphosate. 

During the course of the pilot, no pesticides will be sprayed, and the park will be maintained only through mowing and other standard park maintenance procedures. However, if the Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District decides that they need to spray because of mosquitos then the city would not have control over that. 

“We’re not using alternatives. We’re not using anything. We’re allowing the park to continue in its unsprayed state to find out which pests the public can coexist with,” said Public Affairs and Information Officer Paul Sitkoff. 

The trial will be ongoing for a minimum of one year, and documentation for the pilot began on August 29. City staff has also scheduled walkthroughs for every four to six weeks to document weed growth, hardscape conditions, and the effect of insects and rodents, according to Assistant City Manager and Community Services Director Bonnie Hagan in an email to Non Toxic Orange (NTO) Founder Angela Hicks. 

After meetings with the city council and accumulating 2,1221 signatures on their petition, members of NTO, a group primarily composed of mothers against pesticides, remain unsatisfied with the ambiguity and structure of the pilot. 

“I’m angry. It’s not good enough,” said Hicks. “Doing a pilot by neglect will be a lose-lose for everyone.” 

There are two types of organic pilot programs: Organic by Neglect and Real Organic,  according to Bruce Blumberg, a Non Toxic Neighborhoods (NTN) advisor and Professor of Development and Cell Biology and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California Irvine. 

Organic by Neglect is when nothing is done to the vegetation and continues to be labeled “organic.” On the other hand, Real Organic is when soil tests and other procedures are paired with expert advice to decide how to maximize the health of the vegetation. 

“That’s the difference between what Irvine does and what they’re doing in Santiago Hills,” said Blumberg. “It’s better than spraying pesticides for sure, but it’s not a proper trial either.” 

Although Community Services’ park maintenance staff is overseeing the pilot, Merchants Landscape is the company executing it. Merchants Landscape is also contracted to the City of Irvine, which has been pesticide free since 2016. 

Irvine’s Integrated Pest Management uses organic alternatives in its park maintenance. Instead of using SpeedZone and Roundup, which contain the cancer causing chemicals glyphosate and 2,4-D, Irvine has employed alternative methods such as manual weed pulling and application of mulch in landscape planter areas. 

“They have all the products, and they’ve already done the trial and error in Irvine,” said Jessica Barber, a member of NTO and Chapman ’05 alum. “Orange doesn’t have to spend a lot of money trying different products to see if they are on par with Roundup and SpeedZone. Irvine already knows.”

However, unlike Irvine, the 21 other parks excluded from the pilot continue to be treated with pesticides. Three of those parks are located near schools: Chapman Hills Elementary (Santiago Hills Park), McPherson Magnet School (McPherson Athletic Facility), and Handy Elementary (Handy Park). 

Santiago Hills Park was chosen because it is passive and is located in an area where many of its residents have voiced their want for non-pesticide treated parks, Sitkoff said in a follow-up email.

“We’ve been the loudest and most vocal, but there’s parents from every park,” said Barber. ‘Why don’t they deserve to be protected too?”

Barber discontinued trips to Santiago Hills Park and now visits Irvine and Tustin parks after she discovered that her two-year-old son had developmental delays. It was when she had met Hicks and Kimberley DeLehman, two mothers whose children also have health issues, that she attributed pesticides used at the park to her son’s condition. 

After seeing development delays in her daughter Lily, Hicks also tested her five-year-old last fall. The results showed that Lily was in the 95th percentile for glyphosate (Roundup) and off the chart for 2, 4-D (SpeedZone). 

“Basically my daughter is filled with chemical warfare,” Hicks said about her daughter’s level of 2, 4-D, which was first found in the herbicide Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War and has since been banned. 

Hicks showed the lab results to the city last September, but she claimed that it took them four months to get back to her.

“The city staff were so refractory to any input. It was almost like trying to argue with the makers of the chemicals themselves about why [pesticides] shouldn’t be used,” said Blumberg.

NTN had offered to provide the city with free advice and products, but the city had already done soil testing and Hagan claimed to continue to look into NTN’s advice in an email to Hicks. 

Although the city has agreed to stop pesticide use in Santiago Hills Park for a year, replacing those pesticides with organic products and methods is what some residents expected of the pilot. 

It was only last week that the city had emailed NTN to set up a meeting to discuss NTN’s proposed protocol for Santiago Hills Park, according to Kim Konte, the president and co-founder of NTN. 

As of now, the pilot remains the same, and it is only until spring that the city will have any idea as to whether or not it’s having an impact or if there’s anything they need to do differently, Sitkoff said. 

“It is a process. It will take time. It will also take a lot of patience both on our part and the part of the residents,” said Sitkoff. 

Some residents claim they have waited long enough. 

“When I started this, I was a concerned parent…And now that they know and haven’t switched, now I’m angry. They’ve woken up the mama bear and now I’m mad,” said Hicks. “I will never go away until they do what’s right.”