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February 17, 2011

Oaks poisoned, suspect arrested

One day after the announcement that the beloved 130-year-old oak trees at Toomer's Corner have been subjected to a lethal dose of herbicide, a man has been arrested in connection with the poisoning.

Harvey Almorn Updyke, 62, of Dadeville, had been charged with criminal mischief. His bond was set at $50,000.

Auburn police chief Tommy Dawson confirmed that Updyke was arrested in Auburn at 1:26 a.m. Thursday. Updyke is still in custody and will make a court appearance later today.

According to an Auburn University report released Wednesday afternoon, the application of the herbicide, known as Spike 80DF, or tebuthiuron, is governed by state agricultural laws and the Environmental Protection Agency. Dr. Gary Keever, an Auburn professor of horticulture, confirmed that Auburn has never used Spike 80DF.

Manufacturer Dow Chemical says the substance should be applied with proper clothing protection and a typical use of the herbicide is to kill trees along fence lines. There is no reason to suspect any human danger from the herbicide.

Investigators began examining the trees after a caller to the Paul Finebaum Radio Network said he poisoned the trees. The man, calling himself "Al from Dadeville," claimed to have committed the act the week after last year's Iron Bowl.

Dawson declined to comment on if Updyke is in fact "Al from Dadeville."

The caller said he was upset about a press clipping from 1983 that showed Auburn fans rolling Toomer's Corner the day former Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant died. He also said he was upset about Auburn fans placing a Cam Newton jersey on Bryant's statue.

"The weekend after the Iron Bowl, I went to Auburn, Alabama because I live 30 miles away, and I poisoned the Toomer's trees," the caller said. "I put Spike 80DF in them."

As a precaution, soil samples were taken the day after the phone call took place and sent to the Alabama State Pesticide Residue Laboratory on campus for analysis.

The lowest amount detected was 0.78 parts per million, described by horticulture experts as a "very lethal dose." The highest amount detected was 51 parts per million, or 65 times the lowest dose. Experts believe a normal application by itself would have been enough to kill the trees.

According to Dr. Stephen Enloe, assistant professor of agronomy and soils at Auburn University, there isn't a clear answer on how much longer the trees will survive.

"If the herbicide was indeed put down sometime in the late fall, there have been a number of circumstances that have happened that are going to affect that," Enloe said. "Number one, the toilet papering of the trees and subsequent rolling, this herbicide is water soluble and has moved into the soil profile beneath the trees.

"The live oaks, over the winter months, are basically somewhat slow-growing and have not been actively growing. This herbicide is very active on plants that are very actively growing. So as the trees experience these warm temperatures, there's plenty of good soil moisture there, they will begin to take up the herbicide through the roots, it will be transported into the leaves where it is active and actively inhibits photosynthesis.

"Basically the leaves will then begin to yellow and brown and fall off the tree. That doesn't mean they're dead. Often times, many tree species are very robust and will actually leaf out again following an initially uptake of Spike 80DF herbicide. Following the leaf out, and since Spike is residual and persistent in the soil, the tree roots will then take up more Spike, it will then transport it to the new leaves and you're likely to see that death cycle all over again. Often times trees can go through multiple flushes for a period of a few years depending on the dose of the Spike."

When asked if there is a chance that the trees will survive, Enloe's emotions took over. He was choked up when giving his answer.

"I always want to hold out hope," Enloe said. "Based upon the opinions of experts I've consulted with around the country, the concentration of Spike found within the soil would suggest there is a very low probability."

In an attempt to slow the absorption of Spike, Enloe said they have acquired activated liquid charcoal, which used as an absorbent that will bind to the herbicide and inactivate it.

"That has been applied to the flower beds around the base of the trees and saturated the soil definitely beyond the depth of the soil sampling that we did," Enloe said. "That is currently out there and we will be looking to do some reapplications, adding more liquid charcoal."

Experts will meet later today to discuss other possible ways to save the trees. One is to remove the soil, but that could be easier said than done considering the location of the trees and their surroundings.

"Because the root zone extends well beyond the granite curbing, we would probably have to remove the pavers some distance out from the trees," Keever said, adding that they don't yet know how far the herbicide has spread.

Despite Spike 80DF's toxicity, Enloe said a license is not needed to purchase it.

"It is not a restricted-use product here in the state of Alabama," Enloe said. "Basically it's not a widely-available product, you wouldn't be able to go to your local box store and buy it. You would need to go to an agriculture cooperative or an actual pesticide distributor to purchase Spike 80DF."

Enloe added that Spike 80DF "is not extremely cheap."

In addition, the substance's label outlines the usage of Spike 80DF. According to Enloe, the label is the law.

"The label is a legally-binding document," Enloe said. "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."

Dawson would not comment directly, but did imply that Updyke could face more charges than criminal mischief.

Following the announcement poisoning, City of Auburn mayor Bill Hamm, Jr., said he is "deeply saddened" by the news.

"Over the years, these beautiful old trees have come to represent the Auburn tradition and spirit," Hamm said in a press release. "While this unfortunate act affects our entire community, I encourage my fellow citizens to move forward in the Auburn spirit. I have the utmost confidence in our Police, and in the Auburn University experts fighting to keep these historic oak trees alive. Let's all wish them the best as they pursue their work."

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