WATERVILLE — City Councilor Thomas Klepach, D-Ward 3, is expected to present a browntail moth mitigation plan Tuesday night to the other members of the council and Waterville officials.

The plan is intended to interrupt the increase this year in the moths’ presence, which has caused many people to suffer skin rashes and respiratory problems.

Klepach, a faculty member in the biology department at Colby College, brought news of the browntail moth infestation to the attention of city officials June 1 when he said many people were being affected by the problem and he had received calls and emails from constituents.

Microscopic, poisonous hairs shed by browntail moth caterpillars cause rashes similar to those caused by poison ivy. If inhaled, the airborne hairs may even cause respiratory issues in those with sensitivities.

Klepach has recommended the city allocate $100,000 a year in the municipal budget to a general Environmental Hazards Mitigation account, coordinate with neighboring communities to encourage them to address the issue and develop a regional strategy.

He said the city should file a formal declaration of public health nuisance with the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention to allow for spending public funds on both public and private property, with permission from private landowners, and advocate for state-level action and resources for municipalities.

Browntail moths cluster lights at the Winthrop Commerce Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Browntail moths were first introduced in Somerville, Massachusetts, from Europe more than 100 years ago, but have been steadily becoming more prevalent in Maine in recent years. Meanwhile, severe drought conditions last summer were a boon for the caterpillar in the region, as populations along the Maine coast have continued expanding into Waldo, Kennebec and Somerset counties.

In Waterville, the browntail moth caterpillars became more noticeable this spring. City Manager Steve Daly reported several Public Works Department employees had experienced rashes from working in the city’s parks and ballfields, and from trimming greenery on roadsides.

Browntail moths typically infest oak, pear and apple trees, but also will eat birch, maple and other hardwoods and shrubs, when preferred sources have been defoliated, according to Klepach.

On June 4, councilors held a special meeting at which they declared a public emergency and the need to preserve the public health and safety of residents from browntail moth caterpillars. Councilors authorized Daly to spend up to $5,000 to spread awareness of the issue through signs at city parks, flyers, city websites and other means.

Klepach’s mitigation strategy and month-by-month plan describe the browntail moth as a species with few native biological controls. He said the moth poses a direct human health threat.

“Waterville, and Maine, in general, has not faced an outbreak of this pest of the magnitude that we are currently facing in over a century,” Klepach’s memorandum to city officials reads. “I advocate that the city implement allocate sufficient funds to manage this human health threat here in the city limits for this coming budget year, and follow the month by month mitigation plan that is detailed below.”

Data gathered by the Maine Forest Service indicates the “outbreak is in a year-over-year exponential-growth phase,” according to Klepach, who researched what Waterville spent on an outbreak that spanned 40 years, about a century ago.

“From the data in Table 1 it can be seen that in 1914 alone the city spent almost $64,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars,” his report reads. “This represented 76% of municipal expenditure in March, 99% in April, 87% in May, tapering to 35% in June.”

A browntail moth inventory also should be created, according to Klepach, who has recommended the city get permission to treat affected private property, clip and destroy accessible browntail moth webs manually, plan for spring insecticide treatment and inject trees with inaccessible webs

Klepach’s plan describes the life cycle of browntail moth and lists names and contact information for licensed arborists willing to prune moth webs in various Maine counties.

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