Editor's Note: This story was corrected to show that a judge did not order a new trial after a recent judgement against Monsanto, but lowered the plaintiff's punitive damages.
Joe Tripp made it his mission in July to clean up litter from nearby parks and beaches after he moved to Crystal River from Tennessee earlier this year.
But the 61-year-old U.S. Navy veteran found another assignment in October when he spotted a city worker spraying Roundup on the playground at Hunter Springs Park about an hour after the park had opened in the morning.
“That was the very worst place to put it,” Tripp said in an interview at the city’s waterfront park. “Kids are expected to crawl around down here…they've got their hands in their mouths, walking around barefoot.”
Tripp voiced his worries to Crystal River Public Works about using manufactured herbicides, and made the department an offer it almost couldn’t refuse.
“I just felt like it’s going to give me the heebie-jeebies if any of it got on me…I don’t know if it was something I read, but I didn’t want to be around strong chemicals,” he said. “I proposed a deal to where I would pull up the weeds if (they) stopped spraying herbicide.”
Tripp was hard at work twice a week ripping out pesky weeds and sprigs as they sprouted at playgrounds in Hunter Springs Park and Little Springs Park, a sign, he said, of the chemical herbicide’s long-term ineffectiveness.
Tripp called his one-man litter-cleaning, weeding organization The River Guard, and even has a motto: “Acta, non verba” — Latin for “Actions, not words.”
“To me, it’s like stewardship; protect the Lord’s creations,” Tripp said about his efforts. “It gives me a purpose and something to do.”
Earlier in December, Tripp ran into City Manager Dave Burnell at City Hall and shared his weeding story, which prompted Burnell and his staff to look into other opinions about the use of synthetic weed-killers.
Global concerns over the use of glyphosate, a main pesticide found in Roundup, were heightened in 2015 when the World Health Organization reported the ingredient as carcinogenic to people.
That opened up agricultural chemical giant and Roundup manufacturer Monsanto to hundreds of lawsuits.
Dewayne Johnson, who was diagnosed with terminal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, filed suit against Monsanto, claiming Roundup caused his illness while formerly working as a San Francisco school groundskeeper.
Doctors estimated Johnson would not live past 2020.
A jury agreed, and in August awarded Johnson with $289 million, but a San Francisco superior court judge later lowered his punitive damages to $78 million.
Monsanto is appealing the judgment, arguing that hundreds of contradicting scientific studies, including a 2017 study from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, stated glyphosate was not a likely a carcinogen.
Crystal River staff recently proposed city employees discontinue using glyphosate herbicides on public parks, playgrounds and beaches.
“Where children play, it’s just better to err on the side of caution,” said Beau Keene director of the city’s public works department. “We appreciate the citizen who brought the concern to our attention.”
Instead, the city is testing out a more natural herbicide concoction and is looking at hiring a seasonal worker next year to help alleviate the burden of hand-picking weeds.
“In addition to mechanical removal, we’re testing an all-natural mixture mentioned on many websites as a non-toxic alternative to commercial weed-killers,” Keene said. “Vinegar, Epsom salt and a little bit of Dawn dish soap surfactant.”
“I’m very, very happy that they’re listening to regular, schmuck citizens like me and are caring about it and doing something about it,” Tripp said. “I think if it works, that’s good. If it don’t, let’s go back to pulling.
Even though weeds are dying off as winter rolls in, Tripp said he’ll keep holding up his end of the bargain with the city.
“I feel like I have to come out just as much in case one pops up,” he said. “Next question is, ‘What’s the county using?’”