"It's an emotional question," he said, maintaining his composure. "I always want to hold out hope. Based upon the technical experts I have consulted with around the country, the concentration of Spike found within the soil would suggest there's a very low probability."
The Toomer's Corner oak trees are all over the news today, after police say they were poisoned with a herbicide by Harvey Updyke Jr. of Dadeville, Ala.
Several Auburn spokesmen and horticultural experts spoke about the trees' treatment and future today. Enloe is picture on the left. Gary Keever, the school's Professor of Horticulture, is on the right.
Here's more than a sportswriter ever envisioned having to write about poisoned trees:
- What is Spike 80DF? It's an herbicide commonly used for total vegetation control. It kills most plants and is used in areas where tree control is needed, such as industrial areas, near electrical or pumping stations and, most commonly, along fence roads. It works by inhibiting photosynthesis, essentially starving the tree.
- Enloe said the herbicide is water soluble and has moved into the soil profile beneath the trees, if it was put near the trees in the late fall as "Al from Dadeville" claimed on The Paul Finebaum Show. The trees have not been actively growing this winter, but as the temperature gets warmer, it will take up the herbicide through the roots. The leaves will turn yellow and brown and fall off, but it doesn't mean the tree is dead. Enloe said many species of trees "leaf out" after the initial uptake of Spike, but since the herbicide is in the soil, it will uptake again and repeat the death cycle. This can happen several times before the tree actually dies.
- How much stuff was in the soil? Enloe said between .78 parts per million and about 51 parts per million. Evidence exists that the herbicide can be toxic to some species of oaks at 100 parts per billion. So quite a bit. "Every expert I've talked to around the country in mentioning rates up to 51 parts per million, they were very discouraged and did not offer up a lot of hope (for survival) due to the extremely high concentration," Enloe said.
- How did Updyke allegedly do it? Good question. "We don’t know if he mixed it up in a Coke can and just knocked it over out there," Enloe said. "We don’t know if he sprinkled for the formulation. We just don’t know." Enloe also didn't know how much was used. "The concentration in the top three inches is extremely hot," he said. "That might suggest it hasn’t moved much farther than that. Hopefully, it hasn’t."
- Spike 80DF is not a restricted use product, but it is not widely available. Enloe said you would have to go to an agricultural cooperative or pesticide distributor to purchase it. He also said it is not cheap. "There's some cost involved," he said.
- This part was interesting: The label is the law. "So the label is a legally binding document so that anything you do with that herbicide that is not in agreement with what the label directs you to do is a violation of federal law," Enloe said.
- Keever said that Spike is a material that has never been used on campus at Auburn. Enloe added that it specifically says on the label not to use near vegetation you don't want to injure. "The detection of the chemical up here is not an accident," Keever said. "It's not there because of anything that might have occurred on campus as a part of routine activity."
- How will the trees be affected moving forward? Keever said Spike has a half-life of 12-15 months. It's likely to be in the soil for 3-5 years and can inhibit growth for up to 7 years.
- What has the university done so far? First, they've taken additional soil samples to find out the extent of the Spike -- if it has moved into the landscaping or can damage other vegetation. Those samples are expected back in 7-10 days. They have treated the tree beds with liquid charcoal, which is an absorbent that binds to the herbicide and inactivates it. Keever acknowledged the herbicide has likely moved beyond that. He was unsure how far and in what direction.
- Why not remove the soil, you say? Keever said that the dense roots and granite curbing around the trees make that very difficult, if not impossible. He said the ground was so dense with roots that it was very difficult to even take soil samples. "There may be ways to remove some of the soil," he said. "A lot of people have offered advice. They are very willing to help to do anything to save the trees to increase the chances of survival." One way was a vacuum to remove the soil out of the root zone, which is still an extreme longshot. Keever said after things settle down, they'll decide a course of action to take.
- Can it affect the surrounding trees? Yes. "If it moves into the landscape -- we've got hollies, magnolias, a white oak -- if those root zones come in contact with the herbicide, they'll absorb it just like the live oaks have," Keever said. "And there's a real chance of injury."
- What about the water, you might ask hysterically? Tom McCauley of the Department of Risk Management and Safety with a focus on environmental compliance and responsibility said it is extremely unlikely. The soil is dense, making the migration of the herbicide difficult. The uppermost aquifer is five feet below ground. A drinking water well is 150-200 feet below the ground. "Very little chance to impact the groundwater for drinking water purposes," McCauley said.
- There is a very, very low risk to humans. "You would have to eat quite a bit of it," Enloe said. "A 150-pound male would have to consume at least two ounces of it to have an adverse affect. If it got in your eyes, if you washed it out immediately, there wouldn’t be problems. If you decided to pack it in your eyes and leave it, you’d have eye injuries. ... Basically, anybody celebrating out there under that tree would have eaten several pounds of dirt to have a negative effect."
- Can people go near the trees? Enloe doesn't suggest it. "The less impact below the trees right now would be the best thing for them," he said. "I wouldn't want 100 people stomping around the base of those trees to be honest with you. I don't think that's a good idea." (They've been cordoned off by police barricades to prevent people from getting too close).
- What if the trees don't make it? "The soil would be excavated, new soil brought in and an environment created where trees could grow and thrive," Keever said.
- That's getting ahead of things for now. Deedie Dowdle, Auburn's Executive Director and a school spokesman, said the school is "hoping for a miracle." She didn't want to speak about limiting the rolling of the oaks "With the president being gone, I certainly don't want to say that we're not going to roll the oaks anymore," she said. "Last night, I don't think we could have stopped it if we wanted to."
- Will it prevent future celebrations at Toomer's Corner? "We heard someone say, well, did the Grinch steal Christmas? No," Dowdle said. "The celebrations at Toomer's Corner existed before the rolling of the trees. Not before the trees. But before they rolled the trees they rolled the corner. There will be a lot of things we can do to make those celebrations continue and of course, if the advice is that we not roll the trees to save them, I imagine members of the Auburn family would honor that."
- To get information as it happens, Auburn has set up a website for updates and announcements.