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.

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