AUBURN, AL (WSFA) - A caller to the nationally syndicated radio sports show "The Paul Finebaum Show", claimed responsibility for dumping a poisonous herbicide on Auburn University's historic Toomer's Corner trees. The historic trees are part of an Auburn tradition that includes rolling them with toilet paper after Auburn victories.
The man, who called himself "Al from Dadeville", phoned the Finebaum show on January 27 to make the claim in apparent retaliation for what he believed were misdeeds by Auburn fans as far back as the 1980s.
As a precaution, Auburn University took soil samples the next day and sent them to the Alabama State Pesticide Residue Laboratory on campus for analysis. Results came back Wednesday confirming the man's allegations.
"Al" told Finebaum Auburn students had rolled Toomer's Corner after learning of famed UA football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's death in the early 1980s. He was also upset at seeing a Cam Newton jersey on one of the statues on UA's campus.
"Al" then made the stunning admission that the week after the November 2010 Iron Bowl, he traveled to Toomer's Corner and dumped "Spike 80DF" on the trees. "They're not dead yet, but they definitely will die," he said.
When Finebaum asked if it was illegal to poison the trees, the man said "Do you think I care?" The caller ended the conversation with "Roll Damn Tide."
Auburn University confirmed tests results that showed the herbicide Spike 80DF, commonly used to kill trees, was deliberately applied in lethal amounts to the soil around the Toomer's Corner live oaks on campus. The university says there is little chance to save the trees, but it is working with the chemicals manufacturer to do what it can.
Spike 80DF, or tebuthiuron, is controlled by state agricultural laws and the Environmental Protection Agency. The university says it does not use the herbicide.
There is no reason to suspect any human danger from the herbicide, the university said. The chemical's manufacturer, Dow Chemical, says it should be applied with proper clothing protection; a typical use of the herbicide is to kill trees along fence lines.
TEST RESULTS SHOW 'VERY LETHAL DOSE'
Results showed 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, which are estimated to be more than 130 years old.
"We are assessing the extent of the damage and proceeding as if we have a chance to save the trees," said Gary Keever, an Auburn University professor of horticulture and a member of Auburn's Tree Preservation Committee. "We are also focused on protecting the other trees and shrubs in Samford Park. At this level the impact could be much greater than just the oaks on the corner, as Spike moves through the soil to a wide area." Additional tests are being completed to determine the movement and extent of the area affected, Keever said.
The removal process involves digging trenches and applying activated charcoal to absorb the herbicide from the soil and block its progress. A representative from Dow Chemical, which manufactures the herbicide, is advising the university on removal procedures, and expert horticulturalists are also being consulted.
"We will take every step we can to save the Toomer's oaks, which have been the home of countless celebrations and a symbol of the Auburn spirit for generations of Auburn students, fans, alumni and the community," said University President Jay Gogue.
Gogue asked members of the Auburn Family to "continue to be 'All In' in upholding its reputation for class" and not allow anger to be expressed inappropriately or undeservedly.
"It is understandable to feel outrage in reaction to a malicious act of vandalism," Gogue said. "However, we should live up to the example we set in becoming national champions and the beliefs expressed in our Auburn Creed. Individuals act alone, not on behalf of anyone or any place, and all universities are vulnerable to and condemn such reprehensible acts."
UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA ATHLETICS REACTS
WSFA 12 News' sister station WBRC Fox 6 in Birmingham reached out to the University of Alabama Athletics Department to see if extra precautions were being taken to protect landmarks on UA's campus. Athletic Director Mal Moore released this statement:
"It's an awful act, a terrible thing to do. A lot of what makes our two programs so special is our many unique traditions. So, hearing this about Toomer's Corner is upsetting to me in several ways. I certainly hope that whoever is responsible is held accountable."
Because the application of the herbicide is being investigated, no details about the investigation can be released. Anyone with information can contact the Auburn Police Division at (334) 501-3110 or anonymously by voice or text on the tip line at (334) 246-1391.
AUBURN FAN REACTION
Hundreds of supporters flocked to Toomer's Corner after the announcement and started rolling the stricken trees in a show of solidarity. On Thursday morning, supporters were still coming by the site, while others driving by in their vehicles honked their horns.
An Auburn supporter has established a Facebook page to invite other Tigers fans to come to Toomer's Corner on Saturday, Feb. 19 for a "Toomer's Tree Hug" to show unity and celebrate the Auburn spirit.
"Our tree needs us," the founder of the site wrote. "Someone has attacked the place we gather in victory and celebration.
I know that the university said the fate of the beloved tree is grim, but maybe we can show it and the rest of the nation how much we love not only the tree but what it stands for..."
More than 4,500 people have said they will attend.