The poisonous water in Flint (MI) has been widely publicized—at least in more progressive publications—but lead is not the only danger to water in the United States. Much closer to my home is the practice of spraying herbicides in Oregon’s forests where the poison moves far beyond the intended destination. Each year, helicopters spray herbicides on more than 165 square miles of Oregon timberland, an area larger than the city of Portland, under the West Coast’s weakest regulations.
As endocrine disruptors, herbicides are banned in many countries because of their carcinogenic properties. Exposure results in rashes, nausea, headaches, seizures, and convulsions, and even death. Some herbicides cause nervous system disorders, such as peripheral neuropathy, which begins with numbness and tingling in toes and fingers that spreads to hands and feet as well as pain, muscle weakness, and sensitivity to touch. Long-term exposure to chemicals used in aerial spraying can injure the liver and kidneys.
State foresters and private timber companies use helicopters to kill vegetation on recently logged land through herbicide spraying. Washington, Idaho, and California are aware of dangers and attempt to protect their residents from indiscriminate spraying. Oregon officials with the Oregon Department of Forestry, however, have permitted pesticide sprayers to continue even after they have lost their license. Although complaints against Applebee Aviation found several violations, owner Michael Applebee told his employees to keep flying—which they did on 16 more parcels of forest, two of them public lands.
Applebee employee Darryl Ivy, recorded over 200 videos, showing how helicopters sprayed the toxic poison on workers, drivers moved leaky trucks covered in weed killers past homes and rivers, and one man who dipped a bucket with a chemical polluting water into a stream. One of the weed killers, Velossa, can cause irreversible eye damage; another, 2,4-D, causes skin irritation. Just breathing vapors can cause dizziness. Ivy wasn’t told that they were supposed to wash their skin for 15 minutes if chemicals land on his clothes.
In one video, Ivy inquired about complaining neighbors, and a driver answers, “Pansies.” Asked about deer in the way, a forester says, “They all get sprayed.” After a few days on the crew, Ivy started coughing blood in hacking fits. Red welts still dotted his arms and neck after two weeks. At the emergency room at Roseberg’s Mercy Medical Center, hospital staff immediately put him in a decontamination shower, sealed his clothes in a bucket and kept him in an isolation room, equipped with a special ventilation system used when treating highly infectious patients. A doctor diagnosed him with “acute chemical exposure” and “acute contact dermatitis.”
In 2010, an Applebee pilot covered a Hillsboro cyclist with herbicide, but neither the pilot nor the company was fined. In 2014, another Applebee pilot allowed weed killers to drift 400 feet into a neighbor’s front yard, sickening several people. The pilot and the company were each penalized $407, less than driving 36 mph in a 25 mph zone.
In October 2013, a logging operation sprayed chemicals on over 40 people in Curry County’s Cedar Valley as an independent pilot repeatedly flew over homes between two clearcuts, misting people below. His license was suspended for a year, and both he and the business were fined $10,000. No one has been punished, however, because the case is on hold while Steven Owen, the pilot, is contesting the judgment.
Last fall, a parent saw the aerial spray of chemicals drifting toward Triangle Lake Charter School from two miles away. A new law prevents spraying within 60 feet of school buildings but not the playgrounds or other outdoor areas. Weyerhaeuser had filed a spray notice on August 12, 2015 that they would be spraying between September 2 and December 31; the spray was September 8 and 9, the first two days of school. There were at least ten sprays the first day. The school was not notified because it was not on the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s list.
The 30-minute documentary Behind the Emerald Curtain by the Oregon-based conservation group Pacific Rivers shows testimony from the damaging herbicide spraying, including near schools, healthcare facilities, and schools. As in other communities depending on watersheds for water, Rockaway Beach suffers from degraded water quality and sickened forestry workers because of herbicide spraying.
Last year, the Oregon legislature failed to pass SB 613 to protect Oregonians against exposure to herbicides. The bill proposed to:
- Provide as much protection to people, livestock, and crops as to fish.
- Ensure that people know that herbicides will be sprayed nearby.
- Allow people to know what chemicals are being sprayed near their homes and drinking water supplies.
Although Oregon’s Forest Practices Act requires helicopters to keep chemicals away from a 60-foot buffer zone along fish-bearing streams, residences and agricultural lands have no buffer zone. Washington state has a 200-foot buffer around residences, and Idaho bans spraying within one-half mile of agricultural lands.
Oregonians must each pay $25 for advance notification. Otherwise, Rockaway Beach resident Nancy Webster said, “You just listen for the helicopters.” Information about chemicals in herbicides is difficult or impossible to find.
Up to 40 percent of herbicides sprayed from the air is lost to drift that travels four or more miles. Oregon law does not prevent pilots from spraying in windy and rainy conditions, allowing chemicals on private property and homes.
Opponents of SB613 claim that people get sick because pilots violate existing laws and fear that spraying forest herbicides will be completely banned as it is on federal lands.
Oregon law permits clearcutting on slopes of any steepness within 20 feet of most waterways but with no buffer for small streams without fish. Toxins can be sprayed directly on small streams that flow into larger streams. This practice causes a temperature rise greater than in areas with wider buffers. Last year, Oregon was the first state to have its regulatory program disapproved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA Fisheries, partly because it did not control the aerial application of pesticides.
Conservationists say that there is an alternative to spraying clearcuts to destroy plants competing with new fir saplings. According to Lisa Arkin, executive director of Beyond Toxics, trees will grow with killing off understory vegetation but take longer.
Economist Ernie Niemi points out that the practices are as bad for the economy as for the environment. The exporting of most cut trees eliminates local jobs and income. The film also features private forest owner Peter Hayes, whose family timber company Hyla Woods cuts its trees in ways that maintain as much forest diversity as possible in order to preserve ecosystem health.
Like other rural areas of the state, the abuse of aerial pesticide spraying in Lincoln County (OR) has gone back decades. When a county commissioner protested the EPA ban of herbicide 2,4,5-T in 1979, claiming that any health problems came from smoking marijuana, 22-year-old Melyce Connelly decided to fight back. She had just learned that the EPA found dioxin in a neighbor’s water supply; the neighbor had had two miscarriages and one child with multiple birth defects. The Forest Service announced that it would substitute 2,4-D for that year, spraying the headwaters of Ryan Creek, Melyce’s watershed for her farm.
Melyce and her neighbors met with the district ranger who promised that their water sources would not be sprayed. Three days later, a helicopter sprayed their water source. Within a few days, all the young chicks and ducklings on Melyce’s farm died, and her six-month-old son developed persistent, bloody diarrhea. Over the next month, every pregnant women in her first trimester who lived in the surrounding valley miscarried, and several children were hospitalized with near-fatal cases of spinal meningitis. Melyce carefully preserved the dead chicks and ducklings in her freezer, hoping to get them analyzed.
Hearing the commissioner’s claim about marijuana, she took some of the dead chicks and ducklings and dumped them on his desk along with her baby’s bloody, soiled diaper. The commissioner apologized, and from that time on, Commissioner Andy Zedwick campaigned against the aerial spraying of herbicides. Later Melyce gave researchers the dead chicks and ducklings for analysis only to find out that the results had been “mixed up” with Dow Chemical samples from Midland (MI).
In the next five years, dioxin levels increased four-fold in sediments upstream from Melyce’s home. There was no attempt to collect further samples in the valley, and the EPA announced that the levels presented no “immediate” health risk. Ten years after Ryan Creek was sprayed with 2,4-D, Melyce Connelly died on July 4, 1989 of brain, lung, and breast cancer. She was 32 years old. If she had lived, she would have celebrated her 60th birthday this year.
Not until 1993 did EPA admit that 2,4-D was contaminated with the most toxic form of dioxin, 2,3,7,8-TCDD although they had known this since the early 1970s. The use of 2,4-D in forestry and on residential lawns, roadsides, golf courses, and school grounds continues to this day, with EPA approval.