How Green Is Too Green?

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Course superintendents say there's no cause for alarm if the chemicals are properly applied. "It's very important you follow the label," notes Earl Grey, an agronomy consultant for the county-owned Golf Club of Miami in northwest Dade. He and his fellow superintendents always weigh a number of factors, including area of application, time of day, and weather: Is it too close to a lake? How many hours should pass before golfers can play through? Will it rain and wash away all the chemicals before they can take effect? The selection alone is daunting: According to Grey, about twenty different insecticides, twenty to twenty-five fungicides, and ten to fifteen herbicides are in common use. "This is such a science, you know?" he says. "But I only use what I have to use to control the situation," he adds quickly. "I'm not an eradicator."

The folks at the Golf Course of Miami are particularly sensitive to this issue: The only documented local fish-kill in recent memory that was positively tied to golf-course maintenance occurred at the club.

It happened between July 7 and 8, 1993 (before Grey and the current management took over the operation). The course's lakes and ponds were clogged with thousands of deceased large-mouth and peacock bass, mullet, and shad, some with their eyes bulging from their sockets. An investigation by county scientists determined that the fish had died after heavy overnight rains washed pesticides from the course into the water. The assassin chemical was Nemacure, which is used to kill worms that feed on grass roots. According to the investigators, golf course workers had legally applied the pesticide the day before but had not counted on rain.

Judith Nothdurft, manager of agricultural waste programs at Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), says several other fish-kills reported on or near golf courses haven't been conclusively tied to pesticide use on the courses themselves. They took place in November 1994, when about 1000 fish -- bass and bream -- died in a lake at the Presidential Country Club in North Miami Beach; in April 1995, when 150 tilapia were found floating in one of the five lakes at the Briar Bay Golf Course in southwest Dade; and in August 1995, when DERM investigators observed fish-kills in three separate lakes at the Costa Del Sol Golf Course in northwest Dade, including 300 sunfish in one lake alone.

In a more recent investigation, DERM scientists discovered elevated levels of arsenic (a metal found in a commonly used golf course herbicide) in the soil and groundwater at Bayshore Golf Course, a city-owned facility in Miami Beach. According to DERM records, one sample contained nearly five times the federally permitted level of the chemical. "Due to the levels, it's assumed the arsenic is due to pesticide application," Nothdurft says. This past December DERM referred the case to state environmental regulators for further investigation.

DERM issues a so-called agricultural-waste operating permit to all local golf courses in order to regulate maintenance and chemical storage; officials conduct annual inspections to ensure compliance. But Nothdurft says inspectors don't routinely sample the surface and ground waters on the course; in most cases, only a visible red flag (such as a spill, or dead wildlife) will prompt sampling. Growing concern, however, has prompted DERM, in conjunction with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, to conduct a study that will measure the migration of pesticides and fertilizers through golf course turf and soil, and the chemicals' impact on groundwater. Scheduled to begin within the next month, the study involves the sinking of monitoring wells on five local courses.

While the project will be the first of its kind for Dade's unique hydrological system, there's no dearth of tests and experiments from elsewhere in the nation, which industry boosters and environmentalists alike haul around with them like bags of clubs. "Golf courses are green graveyards," declares David Dilworth, an environmental activist in Carmel, California, and one of the most vocal opponents of golf courses. In their effort to quantify the industry's overreliance on chemicals, Dilworth and his allies are quick to cite a 1991 study conducted by the New York Attorney General's Office that examined pesticide use on Long Island courses: Investigators found that on a per-acre basis the courses deployed as much as seven times the amount of pesticides used by the agriculture industry.

Environmentalists also point to a recent study funded by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, which found a high rate of cancer among supers. Researchers from the University of Iowa studied the mortality records of 618 superintendents who died between 1970 and 1992 and saw elevated incidences of cancer of the lung, brain, large intestine, and prostate, as well as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. (Contends Jeff Bollig, spokesman for the superintendents association: "I'm not going to say the study was flawed, but it was limited. It didn't take into account a lot of variables, such as whether you were an alcoholic or whether you smoked or whether your family had a high cancer rate.")

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Kirk Semple