For rural Oregonians, protections from herbicides come up short

Aerial spray regs remain the West Coast’s weakest after the death of a key law.

 

In October of 2013, a helicopter sprayed a cocktail of herbicides over four clearcuts in a valley north of Gold Beach, Oregon, a coastal community at the mouth of the Rogue River. Logging companies rely on the practice to keep weeds and shrubs from outcompeting tree seedlings. The chemicals, though  including 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange  spread beyond their intended targets. As Rebecca Clarren reported in a cover story for High Country News last November, 35 nearby residents fell ill on the same day, reporting diarrhea, rashes, nosebleeds, bleeding lungs, and sickened animals.

Complaints about pesticide drift are nothing new in Oregon communities abutting private timber lands, where the spraying occurs; the state's rules governing the practice are the weakest on the West Coast. But the high profile Gold Beach incident added urgency to rural residents' and environmentalists' calls for reform.

Aerial spray
A helicopter sprays herbicides on a clearcut near Roseburg, Oregon. Image courtesy of Flickr user Francis Eatherington.
State Senate Bill 613, introduced this February by Portland Democratic Senator Michael Dembrow and Lake Oswego Democratic Representative Ann Lininger, looked like their best hope. It would have required advance public notification of spraying, so that rural residents would know when to move livestock and pets, shut windows, and stay out of recently treated areas. Currently, the industry has a 12-month window to spray after notifying the Oregon Department of Forestry; it does not have to provide a specific date. The bill also would have forced companies to disclose the chemicals involved, and required the state to set buffers around homes and schools. As it stands, the state calls for 60-foot buffers around salmon streams and along stretches upstream of a drinking water intake, but nothing for wells or residences.

But SB613 died under industry pressure April 10 without ever receiving a hearing, even though it was weaker than rules in neighboring Washington. Going into 2015 with a freshly strengthened Democratic majority in the Legislature, “everyone was predicting the greenest legislation in 20 years,” says Steve Pedery, conservation director at Oregon Wild. But when it comes to timber in Oregon – as with ranching in Rocky Mountain states, or oil drilling in North Dakota – alliances don’t forge neatly along political party lines.

The first sign of trouble came when Eugene Democrat Chris Edwards, who has received far more in campaign contributions from the timber industry, according to the Oregonian, replaced Dembrow as chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. There, the bill went into a work group instead of a hearing – and never came out.

Meanwhile, Clatskanie Democrat Rep. Brad Witt, who has received hefty contributions from timber and chemical interests, convened a competing work group in the House to come up with alternative proposals, but refused to consider advance notification on the grounds that it could tip off ecoterrorists who might attack sprayers. “It was impossible for me to make a call on whose safety (neighboring property owners or people making the aerial sprays) is more important,” he told The Register-Guard.

The surviving bills call for what the timber and pesticide industries have argued for all along: increased penalties and strengthened oversight, rather than changing the rules. They would create a toll-free hotline to report incidents, funnel more money from pesticide registration fees to the state’s Pesticide Analytical and Response Center, which investigates incidents, and instate new licensing requirements for helicopter pilots. “Part of the reason for the frustration for rural residents is that the state’s response was poor,” Salem Democratic Rep. Brian Clem, told the paper. The measures, many of which he introduced, would mean “better and faster investigations."

Pedery's not so sure. “It’s hard to say whether it’s better than the status quo. But none of those things do anything to address why complaints are actually happening.”

And at least one, House Bill 3429, might make it worse by “effectively requiring” Pesticide Analytical and Response Center board members “to either currently be employed by the pesticide and logging industries, or have been employed by those industries in the past,” thus compromising its independence, Pedery argued in April 15 testimony. “Oregon is supposed to be this great green Nirvana of the Northwest," he says, but “the politics around timber are still stuck in the ’70s.”

Sarah Gilman is a contributing editor at High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NATURE EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Our mission is to inspire a life-long connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors. We are seeking an educational leader who...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING DIRECTOR
    The Development and Marketing Director is a senior position responsible for the execution of all development and marketing strategies to raise funds and increase public...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Coordinates all Wyoming Wildlife Federation philanthropic activities. Tasks include identification, recruitment, and retention of donors, organizing fundraising events, and assisting with grant writing.
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • CORPORATE & GRANTS PARTNER MANAGER
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation Corporate Partnerships Manager February 2020 www.ForeverOurRivers.org Forever Our Rivers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was formed in late 2016 with the mission...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland vehicle for long distance travel on or off road. Fully self-contained. Less than 25,000 miles. Located in Redmond, OR. Offered at $225,000. Call 541-526-5164.
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year-round outdoor living. REDUCED to $999,000, 575-536-3109.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival, www.coppercanyontrails.org.