In Oregon, Residents Struggle to Solve a Pesticide Mystery

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Herbicide has become a crucial tool for the state's $13 billion timber industry. But in spite of precautions, lab results suggest that harmful chemicals are finding their way into residents' bloodstreams.

herbicide-top-pic.jpgEron King of Blachly, Oregon, says herbicide sprayed on forest ridges makes its way down to the people and animals living below. (Serene Fang/Center for Investigative Reporting)

Six years ago, Eron King, an artist and young mother, moved from the edge of Eugene to a creekside plot of forest valley so her two boys could grow up raising hens and Toggenburg goats. She wasn't naïve about rural life in Oregon, where she'd lived for nine years. The state's western third is timber country, and the tractor-trailer rigs hauling logs were no shock to her.

But like many residents of the region, King was unaware that major timber companies -- Weyerhaeuser, Roseburg Resources, Stimson Lumber, Seneca Jones, and others -- have been spraying millions of pounds of herbicide on their private forestland. Some of it, she believes, is carried by the winds and lands on her property.

Last year, King and her two children, along with their father and 37 other residents, submitted their urine for laboratory testing. The results were startling: Every person tested positive for the compound 2,4-D -- made famous as an ingredient of Agent Orange -- and for the chemical atrazine.

For the $13 billion Oregon timber industry -- which employs an estimated 30,000 people -- forestland free of alder, Scotch broom and blackberry is considered critical.

When forested land is clear-cut, the sun strikes ground that was shaded for decades. Dormant seeds wake up; grasses and other swift opportunists compete with the Douglas fir, the midnight-green monarch that is a symbol of the state and even graces license plates here. So clear-cut hillsides are aerially doused multiple times with chemical agents designed to destroy all other plants.

Herbicide sprayed on cut forestland is supposed to stay on company land. But a growing number of Oregonians suspect chemicals carried on the capricious currents of these mountains do not obey human intentions. There are signs, they say: the absence of fish jumping, a smell on the afternoon breeze, a grapevine suddenly dead, a litter of aborted rabbits.

Three years ago, King had an epiphany after reading the Eugene Weekly, which regularly prints notices about the areas where timber companies are spraying. She found one for Fish Creek. I live on Fish Creek, she thought.

Not long after that, King and her partner, Justin, and their sons, Rowan and Tobbe, then 8 and 3, heard helicopters cresting the ridge that faces their house. "The first spray we ever witnessed, we could watch from my kids' bedroom window," King remembers. "They saw the spray."

Since then, she says, she can expect to see a helicopter spraying somewhere in the steep slopes around her home twice a year, in the fall and spring. The job can last several hours.

"As soon as I hear the helicopters in the morning, I can call the kids inside," King said. "But, I mean, you can't just vacate the land within five minutes of hearing a helicopter. What about our animals? The goats, those are the big thing, and the chickens? Their barn is open."

It's unclear how many residents have been affected by the spraying, though a rough estimate based on U.S. Census data shows about 100,000 residents live near privately owned forests in Oregon. For a $25 fee, the Oregon Department of Forestry sends King notifications when timber companies plan to spray. But the time windows for spraying are so wide -- several months, even a year -- it's difficult to judge when to stay inside. So far, she's received 75 spray notices, for parcels nearby and upstream, with some forms listing as many as a dozen chemicals.

For the timber industry, herbicide has become an essential tool. Without it, much forestland would not be profitable, said Terry Witt, who for 25 years was executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, a trade group for the timber, agriculture and chemicals industries.

Weeds and brush represent competition for water and sunlight. "It really prohibits or hampers the growth potential of that seedling," said Witt, now a consultant. Witt said spraying chemicals from the air -- especially with the aid of global positioning systems -- is "a very economical way to apply a uniform rate of pesticides according to the label."

"If there's data that shows that the practices need to be altered or changed, the industry is more than willing to look at what recommendations or change in practices could be employed," Witt said. But he added, "We believe that if it's done responsibly and legally, it does not represent unreasonable harm."

***

Stu Turner, whose father pioneered crop-aviation insurance in the 1950s and who investigates cases of misapplication of pesticides, is offended by what is allowed in Oregon. At his computer screen, Turner points to video he shot of fog drifting up and down like apparitions, moving in three directions at once in a dark green, plunging valley.

"Anyone who hunts around here knows that you get up early to hunt and you want to hunt uphill because that cool air is still moving downhill," said Turner, whose basement trophy room at his home in West Richland, Washington, displays timber wolf, bull elk, arctic fox, and pronghorn.

The steep, uneven terrain, he said, forces pilots to fly at heights that would not be tolerated in crop agriculture: 50, 70, or 80 feet up. For regular crops, he said, 10 feet is normal.

Turner clicks on a photo of a Bell 206 JetRanger helicopter, its tank filled with weed killer in preparation for a run. The copter's skids rest on a slick of ice. "You can see the ground is frozen," he said. "It's got snow on it. They're putting pesticides on snow. When that snow melts, it's ... runoff. Just out of this picture here is the Rogue River."

But Turner's biggest concern isn't just that herbicide is applied too high, or that it drifts on unpredictable mountain currents, or that it's sprayed on frozen ground in Oregon. He said timber companies spray herbicide on forestland at more pints per acre than would be acceptable in crop agriculture.

The most heavily applied compound, glyphosate, typically is sprayed here at a rate far higher than on cornfields, Turner said. The compound 2,4-D is the third-most heavily applied herbicide and typically is applied on Oregon forestlands at a much higher rate than used on wheat fields, Turner said.

Most timber companies declined to be interviewed for this story. (Stimson and Seneca Jones did not respond to repeated requests, while Perpetua canceled a scheduled interview. Roseburg declined and asked that we speak with Witt and the state instead.) But in an email, Greg Miller, public affairs manager for Weyerhaeuser, disputed some of Turner's claims. He said skilled personnel know how to take into account conditions such as temperature and wind. The applications are done according to the law, Miller wrote. And once Douglas fir trees are "free to grow" without competition, he said, companies do not continue to spray.

"We use procedures that ensure the safe application of these products, including technology and professional licensed expertise to make sure the chemical is correctly applied," Miller wrote.

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Ingrid Lobet is a contributor to the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. She is also reports energy and environment stories with the public radio program BURN.

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