The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is investigating claims made by a former employee that pesticides were improperly sprayed and dumped in wetlands and gardens along Lake Harriet.

Park gardeners were accused of mishandling the pesticides at Roberts Bird Sanctuary and the Lyndale Park Peace Garden in 2017 and 2018 by the former employee, whose comments were shared by the head of the Park Board’s pesticide advisory committee in early October. Hundreds of park visitors, volunteers and wildlife were potentially exposed to the pesticides, including a frog discovered with mutations.

Park Board officials, including Superintendent Al Bangoura, said they are taking the allegations seriously but need more specific evidence.

“We are looking into them. And with the details we have, we can look as far as we can,” Jeremy Barrick, the Park Board’s assistant superintendent of environmental stewardship, said last week. “Are these allegations out of character? It’s been my experience, yes. In recent history, I would not expect these to be true.”

The allegations have reignited the debate over whether the Minneapolis Park Board should move toward eliminating pesticides and herbicides entirely from its parks and instead use nontoxic alternatives. The system has made recent changes, ending the use of glyphosate — the active ingredient in Roundup — and creating the pesticide advisory committee, which offers recommendations on how to reduce the use of chemicals.

But in the spring, the agency received a warning from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for its use of herbicides on poison ivy at Minnehaha Falls.

In a recent interview, advisory committee chairman Russ Henry said he was distraught and “deeply saddened” when he first heard the employee’s allegations earlier this fall. He and volunteers at Roberts Bird Sanctuary are calling for an independent investigation.

“Our parks system is facing an existential crisis,” Henry said. “We actually have to transition away from these products.”

‘What will you do?’

Roberts Bird Sanctuary, a marshy patch of woods on the north shore of Lake Harriet, was designated in 1936. Just beside it is the Lyndale Park Peace Garden, a manicured park featuring trees and rocks that is a common venue for outdoor weddings.

Angee Ohmah Siegel, a seasonal gardener for the Park Board, reached out to Henry to share what Henry described as “staff misusing and abusing pesticides.”

Sometime in 2017 or 2018, Siegel witnessed parks staff spraying herbicide during a windy day, leading her to go to the hospital with “uncontrollable vomiting,” Henry said. A large group of students visiting the Peace Garden at the time had to leave early, he said.

Siegel said that herbicide was used inside the Roberts Bird Sanctuary, which is against Park Board policy, Henry said. Siegel also said employees dumped unfinished canisters or spray bottles with pesticides into a pond inside the bird sanctuary, Henry said. Months later, Siegel took photos of what she said was a six-legged frog found there.

Siegel and Henry shared the allegations with Park Board commissioners during their Oct. 2 meeting, carrying with them large posters of the frog. “I know I have been wronged and I know the public has been wronged,” Siegel told the commissioners. “So has the fragile ecosystem and people of the parks and rec community. What will you do about this, I ask you?”

At a following meeting, Bangoura said they were “aware of these reports and take these allegations very seriously.”

“We have asked that anyone that has evidence to support those claims, please provide that information to us so we can fully investigate the matter further,” he said.

Siegel could not be reached for comment.

Park Board President Brad Bourn said that, like other parks officials, he is looking for more information to corroborate Siegel’s allegations. While he has been proud of recent efforts to decrease the use of pesticides, there is still more work to do, he said.

Move away from pesticides

For its neighborhood parks and natural areas, the Park Board rarely uses chemicals to control pests. They’re used more often on golf courses and athletic fields.

“Those landscapes all have a differing level of maintenance regime and management requirement,” Barrick said. “We live in a world of limited resources where we have to do things as efficiently as possible.”

Artificial pesticides are used in park systems across the country, Bourn said. Residents should know what “moving away from more manicured spaces into more natural spaces” would look like if the Park Board were to stop using them, he said.

Yet others have seen natural forms of pest control work. Volunteers with Friends of Roberts Bird Sanctuary pull buckthorn, an invasive species, by hand and with special tools, said volunteer Stephen Greenfield.

Greenfield and volunteer Constance Pepin said they believe Siegel’s allegations are “plausible,” and also want a third-party investigation. Ultimately, they want the Park Board to move away from pesticides.

“Even if this wasn’t done intentionally, accidents happen and they harm the wildlife in the sanctuary,” Pepin said.

“We need to be building up the soil and having ... healthy populations of insects and birds as part of a healthy ecosystem,” she said. “Pesticides don’t have a place in that.”