Timber companies in Oregon spray their forests with chemicals to prevent plant growth. The practice was banned decades ago in the state’s national forests. In a project with the Center for Investigative Reporting Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports on the practice and the residents who are worried that the chemicals are affecting their health.
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Oregon is timber country.
The terrain is steep, dark green, and intensely beautiful. Six million acres of Oregon forest is owned by commercial timber companies. The companies spray the land with herbicide when the trees are young. It’s an efficient way to kill every other plant except for the commercially valuable douglas fir.
But the timberland region is vast so it’s no wonder many rural Oregon residents don’t know of the extensive use of herbicides. Now, residents have become increasingly aware of the practice, and a growing number are questioning it. In a joint project with the Center for Investigative Reporting, Living On Earth’s Ingrid Lobet has our story.
[SOUND OF ANIMAL COOP DOOR OPENING AND A CHILD’S VOICE. ROOSTERS AND HENS IN THE BACKGROUND]
LOBET: Eleven-year old Rowan Waking steps inside a pen on his family’s country acre near Triangle Lake, Oregon. He proudly feeds his goats.
WAKING: When we got these three, Carmel was more of a baby. And she was a pretty cute baby. She was still getting milk off of Coco, but we weaned her.
LOBET: The family’s home sits between two creeks. Forested mountains rise all around. Rowan’s mom, Eron King, wasn’t surprised when the timber company Weyerhaeuser clear-cut a section. But what came next shocked her.
KING: The first spray that we ever witnessed we could watch from my kids’ bedroom window.
LOBET: A helicopter equipped with spray tanks and nozzles doused the mountain with herbicide.
KING: You would suddenly hear the thunderous roar and the helicopter comes up and over the mountaintop and hovers…
[SOUND OF HELICOPTER]
LOBET: King recorded this video of a spray near her house.
KING: It turns around and disappears again. Over and over, sometimes for hours.
LOBET: Oregon law is favorable toward an industry that generates 12.6 billion dollars a year. It doesn’t require companies to inform residents when they are going to spray. So during the spring and fall sprays seasons, King and her partner Justin wait for the rotor sound, so they can call the kids inside.
KING: But we have chickens and goats. I can’t really bring them inside and away from all that. And we eat the eggs and drink the milk and we can only take so many precautions.
LOBET: Not long after the first spray near King’s house, about 200 miles to the south in Selma, Oregon, Gisa Hertler was home with two young kids, when she heard something unusual. She stepped outside.
HERTLER: Because the helicopters came over and I mean it’s interesting and it’s interesting for the kids. And we live, we live at the end of the world, you could say. And we don’t see things like that, and I took the girls outside and we were watching the helicopters. A little after that, we found out that they were actually spraying.
LOBET: This is a common refrain. People know about the log trucks and sawmills, but they don’t know about the spraying.
[SOUND OF BREATHING]
LOBET: Hertler’s youngest is now four. She lies across her mother’s legs, fast asleep despite having taken a puff of albuterol. Her mother says she’s had asthma since they stepped outside during the spray. In fact all three have been ill.
HERTLER: We are sick constantly. I mean I had in the last year three times pneumonia…
LOBET: She also worries about the family’s animals.
HERTLER: We had a cow where we were waiting every day for her to actually have a baby and she was having symptoms and we even went out in the woods because sometimes they go into the woods to have their babies. She had no baby. My rabbits they had dead birth. And we fed them just from the grass or dandelion or whatever is there. And my cat, one of my cats, she had two times, in that year after the spraying, she had two times dead birth.
LOBET: About 1.1 million pounds of herbicide were sprayed on Oregon’s forests in 2007. It's the number industry cites as best now that the state no longer keeps records. This is on land owned by Weyerhaeuser, Roseburg Resources, Stimson Lumber and others. Representatives of these companies and others declined to be interviewed. Some referred questions to Terry Witt, who represented the industry for 25 years. He says aerial spraying is efficient.
WITT: It's a very economical way to apply a uniform rate of pesticides according to the label.
LOBET: Witt explains timber companies need their trees to be “free to grow.” That means unencumbered by other plants like alder that might spring up quickly after a clear-cut.
WITT: There's a tremendous seed bank in the ground that when you disturb the soil the seeds start sprouting. And it severely restricts the ability of the seedling to number one, survive, but just as important, if it survives the first couple years, it really prohibits or hampers the growth potential of that seedling.
LOBET: With modern equipment like GPS and maps onboard the helicopters, Witt says, there’s little chance for chemicals to stray off target.
WITT: We believe that if it's done responsibly and legally, it does not represent an unreasonable harm.
LOBET: But by early last year, some residents near Eron King’s community of Triangle Lake were so concerned they reached out to Dana Barr, a national expert on chemical exposure.
BARR: It seemed like a significant enough situation that it should have at least garnered some attention and should have been evaluated.
LOBET: Barr spent 23 years at the Centers for Disease Control and now has her own lab at Emory University in Atlanta. She tested urine from 41 people, most of them living near Triangle Lake. She found the herbicides atrazine and 2,4-D in every one.
BARR: It was not what I’m used to seeing, that we don’t frequently detect these chemicals in urine samples. It was surprising to find them in all of the samples tested, yes.
LOBET: The results were also surprising because these herbicides are not thought to stay in the body.
BARR: It would either have been a recent exposure or a continual exposure, which would include a recent exposure.
LOBET: Some dozen herbicides are commonly used on the forest here. The top five are: glyphosate, that’s what’s in Roundup, also atrazine, 2,4-D, triclopyr and hexazinone.
FENTON: Herbicides are understudied. There’s not a lot of funding for it. But even worse than that is the fact that early life exposures to herbicides are really understudied.
LOBET: Suzanne Fenton is a reproductive endocrinologist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. She says animal studies show some herbicides, including atrazine, can disrupt the development of certain parts of the body when exposure happens during a vulnerable period.
FENTON: There is a very small window of time during pregnancy during which these herbicides, atrazine and its metabolites, can actually affect the breast. And it can affect it into adulthood. It can affect lactation. So it can affect the ability of the mom to provide nutrients to her offspring. In a child and an infant, the gland, the organ in the body may not be well formed, or mature. And as it’s being exposed, it’s changing its life course, the path it’s going to take for the rest of its life.
LOBET: At the University of California Irvine, developmental biologist Bruce Blumberg says this can happen because developing babies and their mothers respond to certain substances in infinitesimal concentrations.
BLUMBERG: So for example the estrogen receptors in a woman’s body is fully saturated at one part per billion of estradiol. The androgen receptor is comparable. So is the thyroid hormone receptor.
LOBET: But that’s not why Stu Turner, an expert in pesticide accidents, is concerned about weed killer in Oregon’s forests. Turner likes herbicides as a tool, but he says Oregon allows pilots to spray in terrain and under conditions that are just too risky for wildlife and people.
TURNER: These pilots are very skilled pilots. I have tremendous, sort of, respect for their technical flying skills. But they are only able to defeat the laws of nature to a certain extent.
LOBET: Turner says the helicopters fly high to clear the tops of trees. They release spray into shifting mountain air currents. It’s not like spraying wheat and cornfields, ten feet off the ground, the way most herbicide is sprayed. Turner points to a photo.
TURNER: You take pictures of a helicopter at that elevation above the ground. You take pictures on frozen, steep, snow-covered ground. That’s directly above the Rogue River or some other major feeder that if it doesn’t have salmon in it, it’s got trout, if it doesn’t have trout, it’s got steelhead. We know that this is damaging, and even if it wasn’t damaging, it’s wrong.
LOBET: Even more concerning, Turner says, is that when herbicides like Roundup or 2,4-D are used on forests, they’re sprayed at more ounces per acre than when they’re used on cropland.
TURNER: And this is what I tell all of my industry people is: You keep it on your block, I don’t have an issue with you. You keep it in your block. The fact is they’re not keeping it in the block. The physical evidence is overwhelming.
LOBET: Weyerhaeuser’s Greg Miller disputes these characterizations. He declined to be interviewed but in an email said licensed staff and the right technology ensure the safe application of herbicide. Company personnel know how to take weather conditions such as temperature and wind into account. And he stresses it’s all according to the law.
The U.S. Forest Service is the other major forestland owner here, and it used to blanket the land with herbicides, including the mixture Agent Orange. Rural residents sued the government to stop the spraying and won. So the national forests in Oregon and Washington haven’t used this practice since 1984. Jim Furnish, a former deputy chief at the U.S. Forest Service, says they found an alternative: hand cutting saplings at just the right time. It was more expensive. But it did the job.
FURNISH: The use of herbicide is not necessary. If you are trying maximize profit, you can make the case herbicides are the best way to control deciduous vegetation and maximize profit. But I would make the argument also that forestry in Oregon is profitable under many difference scenarios. It is some of the best timber growing country in the world.
LOBET: Furnish says there was frustration and grumbling at the Forest Service when the courts took away herbicide, but it was better for the forest.
FURNISH: I mean when you look at a 40 acre clear-cut unit and you drift in some herbicide over and a week later all the deciduous vegetation is dead it’s difficult to imagine that not being a profound impact on the environment.
LOBET: Furnish is surprised the practice is still used on commercial land.
FURNISH: I find it somewhat ironic that this has been almost what 20 years and counting since this practice stopped on national forests lands but it continues even though the issue is the same. If it was stopped because it was perceived as being bad for people and bad for the land why is that not also true?
LOBET: Those who object to forest spraying in Oregon do not have much recourse because of the Right to Farm and Forest Act. Lisa Arkin directs the non-profit Beyond Toxics.
ARKIN: If they call the Oregon Department of Forestry or the Oregon Department and Agriculture they’re going to be told that commercial timber has every right to spray aerially with pesticides because of the Right to Forest Act.
LOBET: Oregon residents don’t even have the right to find out what was sprayed. Physicians who want to know what their patients were exposed to often can’t get records. Even the health department has trouble getting spray records. The Oregon Health Authority asked for data so it could find out what was sprayed when Triangle Lake residents tested positive. Eight months later, the agency still doesn’t have the records.
[SOUND OF CROWD]
LOBET: Some residents are becoming impatient. Recently more than 100 people, including Sally Crumb, packed a community meeting to hear from state and federal officials why it’s taking so long to set up air monitors and further urine testing.
CRUMB: People are getting sick and they’re getting hurt and you are talking about a scientific solution that is somewhere in the future. You know we need something done now.
LOBET: Some, like Ellen Mooney, said they’re not worried about forest herbicide spraying.
MOONEY: I’m not concerned with this. What we have is a circumstance where we have a lot of outside people that have moved into our community and now are telling us how to manage our farms.
LOBET: Others, like Eron King, said it was the local school that was the last straw. Forest around the school was cut and sprayed, then the herbicide Imazapyr turned up in school drinking water.
KING: I do not think it is okay that my children have 2,4-D and atrazine in them. And I do not think it is okay that children should be allowed to drink water that is contaminated with Imazapyr.
LOBET: State health officials sought to reassure residents they’re still on the case. But some parents, convinced that local officials don’t understand the risk, are moving on. They seek a moratorium on spraying the forest. For Living On Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet.
GELLERMAN: Our story about the use of herbicides on Oregon forest is a joint project with the Center for Investigative Reporting.
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