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Roberta Wiernik

Battling Pests and Pesticides Earns Award for Westchester Woman

Roberta Wiernik
photo by Peter Wiernik

Roberta Wiernik had her eyes open when she walked into the job--chairing Westchester County's Pest Management Committee. She had years of environmental and community activism and education under her belt. She had helped draft the pesticide reduction legislation the county adopted in 1995.

Still, in all her years of volunteer work, chairing Westchester's Pest Management Committee was probably the biggest project she'd ever tackled.

Phasing out pesticides means having a plan to cope with potential outbreaks of harmful pests. In a county with a population verging on a million, it's not if pests get out of hand, but when, where, and how much. What you need: a way to prevent or mitigate damage from pests and pesticides both.

Now for her exceptional work in crafting a flexible, practical, carefully thought-out strategy for a wide range of pest problems under widely ranging conditions, Wiernik has received an Excellence in IPM award from the New York State Integrated Pest Management (NYS IPM) Program at Cornell University. IPM seeks preventive, cultural, mechanical and least-toxic ways to deal with pests.

"The workload was tremendous," Wiernik says. "We've had to get our arms around a huge amount of data. It's a big county and we're all volunteers."

Westchester County has seven sewage treatment plants, 50 parks comprising 18,000 acres, six golf courses, an airport, community college, transit hub, amusement park, and scores of office and maintenance buildings that are home to 40 departments and 6,000 employees. The committee assessed each agency's pest issues and what chemicals they routinely used, then grappled with creating sensible, scientifically sound solutions that worked across widely varying circumstances in largely public settings.

The key to success? "A lot of relationship building," says Wiernik. "And having a great committee. We've got experts in medicine, public health, horticulture, and pest control, all knowledgeable, hard-working people." The county recently hired a part-time IPM specialist, Wiernik notes, making site visits, managing the new database and developing working relationships with county personnel more possible.

"Roberta is a real people person," says Curtis Wegener, a PMC member and maintenance supervisor for the Yonkers Municipal Housing Authority. "She never drops the ball. Without her, this pesticide phase-out wouldn't have succeeded."

Wiernik has poured a huge amount of time, knowledge, and people skills into making Westchester County's phase-out work smoothly, notes Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an educator with NYS IPM. "Not only that, but the PMC provides a model of sound IPM that other cities and counties could follow. It's a tremendous accomplishment."

How would Wiernik explain the committee's importance to golfers, picnickers in the park, or new staff at, say, the transit hub? Simple, says Wiernik. "It's about your health. If there's a safer way, why not?"

Wiernik receives her award on October 5, 2009, at a meeting of the Westchester County Board of Legislators.

Mary Woodsen