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How One Complaint Reveals The Flaws In Oregon’s Pesticide Regulation

Tony Schick

Forest owners in the Northwest use helicopters to spray weed killer after logging.
It’s an effective way to kill plants like blackberry and alder that compete with the next crop of tree seedlings. But it’s controversial. Last year people near the coastal Oregon city of Gold Beach claimed they were poisoned. State officials and timber lobbyists blamed that incident on mistakes by the pilot. But sometimes, communities report drift even when timber companies appear to be following the rules.

The notes on Lori Valuch’s yellow legal pad tell her story from the April day a helicopter sprayed nearby.

Valuch: “Symptoms: Face burning, eyes red, tongue feels weird and burns. Coughing, clearing throat and spitting.”

Valuch is reading those notes in the living room of her house in Tiller, along Oregon’s South Umpqua River. She’s not done.

Valuch: “First I had a stomach ache, eyes, nasal passage, throat all burning. Lips and tongue burning, kinda tingly, heart feels like it’s racing.”

The Oregon Department of Agriculture found no chemicals on her property but did find traces at her neighbors’.

It’s not the first time the state failed to connect the spraying to the symptoms.

Last year Gold Beach residents complained a helicopter poisoned them. Investigators found chemicals from the helicopter on some properties but stopped of short of linking them to reported symptoms.

That case resulted in state senate hearings, a lawsuit and a $10,000 fine against the pilot.

The industry said one negligent pilot there gave the practice a bad name, and existing laws work if you follow them.

But that’s what’s interesting about Tiller. Here, there’s no such scapegoat.

But chemicals still drifted. And residents still complained.

Joe Valuch: "If they sprayed over here and sprayed over there you know they sprayed in the river."

Credit Tony Schick / Earthfix
Jackson Creek is protected spawning grounds for salmon and steelhead. The weed killer atrazine, harmful to fish, was recently found to have drifted across it, according to state investigators.

From a grassy bank, Joe Valuch peers over Jackson Creek near his house. This is where it feeds into the South Umpqua River, and also where the state found traces of the weed killer atrazine.

Across the creek is the Seneca Jones Timber company land that was sprayed.

His wife Lori is down by the water with Chris Rusch, a retired forest service botanist who lives in Tiller. They’re hunting for signs of herbicide damage.

Chris Rusch: “That one right in front of us there, see that Oregon ash tree foliage ... gone, pretty much.”

Joe, meanwhile, is naming the fish he’s not allowed to catch here: cutthroat trout, salmon, steelhead, the list goes on.

Joe Valuch: "Nope. It's all protected. Spawning grounds. Protected from people who would catch and release. Not from people who would dump and destroy."

Atrazine and spawning grounds don’t mix well.

Here’s UC-Berkeley professor Tyrone Hayes, explaining why during a conference at the University of Oregon.

Hayes: “There’s a huge amount of data on salmon showing that atrazine interferes with their ability to make sperm, it interferes with the male’s ability to follow the female’s pheromones and find the females, it interferes with some of the gill function...”

Hayes has been fighting atrazine’s maker, Syngenta, ever since his research showed the chemical did strange things to frog hormones.

He says one case of drift won’t cause lasting harm, but environmental groups point out Oregon offers less protection from drifting chemicals than other states. For instance, other states have larger no-spray buffers around homes and water.

In Tiller, atrazine was found about 250 feet from its target. A complaint came from 1,000 feet farther.

The stricter rules advocates are pushing for? They wouldn’t have required buffers that large.

Ted Reiss is a forester with Seneca Jones. He doesn’t mind hard questions about what went wrong in Tiller.

Reiss: “I don’t know that the industry is being unfairly vilified. I think there are relevant questions associated with making sure that things are done right and people’s health and the environment is protected.”

Credit Joe Valuch
Joe Valuch took this photograph of the Applebee Aviation helicopter spraying near his home in Tiller, Ore., in April.

Seneca Jones hired Applebee Aviation to do the spraying. The state’s case file shows Applebee violated state law by allowing pesticides to drift off target. But how, it doesn’t say.

Applebee did not respond to interview requests.

The state’s case file also shows the companies followed the rules meant to prevent drift. They just didn’t work.

Reported wind speeds were within the desired range. Spraying stopped when winds picked up. The no-spray buffer was larger than required. The investigator’s notes describe the spray as, quote, “appropriate.”

Here’s Reiss, the Seneca Jones forester, again:

Reiss: “The application, we believe, was done correctly and still had a result where a very small amount was found where it shouldn’t have been. And that’s interesting to us as well.”

If he’s right, that makes for a big question facing Oregon lawmakers: How do you prevent cases like this?

The state’s Senate environment committee has another hearing on the topic in December.

In the meantime, a team crafting new legislation will meet with members of the timber industry. Under the current system, cases like Tiller leave even some of them confused.

Copyright 2014 Earthfix

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