KELLNER: Earlier this fall a helicopter company lost its license to spray pesticides in Oregon. Then it went out and applied weed-killing chemicals on 800 acres of state and private forests.
It turns out the state forestry officials who could have stopped that spraying didn’t inform their field staff about the license suspension in time.
This case is the latest in a long running controversy about the use of pesticides on Northwest forests.
Tony Schick of our EarthFix team has been looking into it. He joins me now.
AK: So help us get back up to speed on aerial pesticide spraying. Who does it and why?
TS: State foresters and private companies have to replant trees after logging. They spray herbicides to kill the vegetation that competes with those young trees.
It’s often over large areas, and on steep slopes, so using helicopters with a big spray arms attached to either side is considered the most efficient way for the industry to do it.
That’s been controversial for a while. Environmental groups and some neighbors to private forest land have concerns about chemical drift and human health.
AK: So the company in question is Applebee Aviation. Remind us how it lost its pesticide license?
TS: That was after an investigation into a truck driver’s complaint about chemical exposure. You might remember a former Applebee employee named Darryl Ivy.
Last spring he went to The Oregonian with hundreds of photos and videos he took on job sites. He told stories about taking cover in his car to avoid chemicals drifting down from overhead after they’d been sprayed from a helicopter.
Oregon’s worker protection agency and the state’s agriculture department investigated Applebee and found violations worker protection law.
That led to the license suspension.
AK: But the company kept spraying?
Yes. At least 16 different times, according to investigators. And two of those were on state forests.
We were curious about how an unlicensed company would be able to keep spraying, especially on public land.
But the agencies that regulate this -- the state’s agriculture and forestry agencies -- wouldn’t grant interviews. There’s ongoing litigation, and their lawyers from the Department of Justice instructed them not to comment.
So we filed a records request for documents related to Applebee and got hundreds of email and other documents.
AK: Interesting. And what did they tell you?
TS: It is helping us piece together the the timeline of events, and a sense of who knew what when.
Sept. 25 was the day the Oregon Department of Agriculture revoked Applebee’s license. And they told state forestry officials about it the same day.
The records also showed the Forestry Department did not share that information with its field staff.
AK: Presumably, the field staff would enforce that license suspension?
TS: Yes. They’re the ones who could have done something to prevent these illegal applications.
So without knowing about the suspension, or knowing it was coming, state foresters let Applebee spray the same day it lost its license and the next day, when it became illegal.
AK: So when did field staff learn about the suspension?
TS: Some learned about it from news articles.
The earliest indication of the Department of Forestry informing field staff is October 7. That’s several days after it was widely publicized in the news.
AK: But why wait that long?
TS: I don’t know. But I can tell you that on the morning of Oct. 7, the Department of Forestry got an email from Lisa Arkin at Beyond Toxics of Eugene. She is an anti-pesticide advocate and one of the more vocal critics of the agencies.
So her email was asking why Applebee was still listed on active jobs, asking isn’t it illegal for them to be spraying. She brought up the fact that communication has been a problem for these agencies before. And she copied a few state legislators and the governor’s office on the email.
The agency’s email to field staff came a few hours after she sent that email.
AK: So what is next? Did the agencies learn from this?
TS: In one of the emails, the Deputy Director of the Department of Agriculture acknowledged that no procedure exists for how to communicate about license suspensions. She said they’d look into that.
And recently I sat in on a meeting of the governor’s Environmental Justice Task Force. They’re having discussion about how to handle environmental violators who keep getting government contracts. And this was one of the examples that came up.
AK: Tony, thank you for digging into this and for sharing what you found on this unfolding story. Thank you for your time.
TS: Thank you, it has been a pleasure speaking with you.