Rural Lane County residents fight aerial herbicide spraying
TRIANGLE LAKE, Ore. (AP) — Jenn and James Ruppert raise rabbits, goats and bees on their 3-acre farm. Most of their neighbors are small-farmers, too, or retirees living on acreage along Highway 36 as it winds through the rural Lake Creek Valley.
Weyerhaeuser Co. owns thousands of acres of forestland around the valley and frequently carries out clear-cuts. Seneca Jones Timber Co., Roseburg Forest Products, Giustina Resources and numerous smaller operators log across the county, too, harvesting some of the 2 to 3 billion board feet of wood cut from Oregon’s private timberlands each year.
The timber companies’ intermittent use of helicopters to spray herbicides onto clear-cuts to kill brush and let planted Douglas fir seedlings survive has long been a flash point in this community, and in other parts of rural Lane County where homes abut large private forests.
But it became personal for the Rupperts on a September morning in 2015 when Jenn Ruppert said she heard a helicopter hover above a Weyerhaeuser-owned ridge two miles from their house, then saw a cloud of mist rolling downward.
“You could see the drift coming,” she said. “It had a chemical smell, like ammonia.”
Within days, the Rupperts and their children were coughing and suffering from nosebleeds, rashes, diarrhea and vomiting. She said her rabbits began having miscarriages. Most of her beehives and numerous fruit trees and vegetables died, she said.
So the Rupperts leapt at the chance to sign a petition circulated by local activists to ban aerial herbicide spraying across Lane County through an amendment to the county’s charter.
Community Rights Lane County and the Lane County Freedom From Aerial Herbicides Alliance turned in about 15,000 signatures to the Lane County Clerk’s Office in September, more than enough to place a measure on the ballot in the May 15 election.
But a legal challenge and an obscure state statute that forbids proposed county charter amendments from preempting Oregon law has put the ballot measure on hold. Supporters of the spray ban and Lane County legal staff are awaiting a Lane County Circuit Court judge’s ruling on the matter that could come as soon as this week.
Tracking aerial herbicide spraying in Oregon — including how many aerial sprays take place in a given time-frame and how much herbicide is released — is no easy task.
Before they spray, timber operators must file a notification with the state Department of Forestry, which regulates logging on private lands.
The department’s database lists more than 1,100 notifications to conduct aerial sprays in Lane County since October 2014. That’s an average of more than 21 a month.
But some permits appear to be duplicates. In the case of large companies like Weyerhaeuser, the notices often list multiple properties covering hundreds or thousands of acres, though clear-cuts are limited to 120 acres under state law, Department of Forestry spokesman Nick Hennemann said. Plus, some timber companies may file notifications but never spray.
Yet the sheer volume of permits highlights the major role helicopter spraying plays in forest regeneration on timber companies’ clear-cuts.
Timber companies are hardly the only Oregon entities that use herbicides. Herbicides and pesticides are commonly used by farmers, by rural homeowners and by city dwellers.
Forest industry advocates say aerial spraying of forestland accounts for just 4 percent of all pesticides sprayed in Oregon each year.
“We have a lot of measures in place to make sure pesticides and herbicides are used properly,” said Sara Duncan, spokeswoman for the Oregon Forest and Industries Council, which lobbies on behalf of timber companies.
Duncan said companies typically spray a clear-cut two to four times in the first few years after the site has been logged and planted with seedlings. With the competing brush dead, the seedlings can survive the first few years and grow to maturity. Without spraying, seedlings can be overwhelmed by blackberry thickets and other growth, the industry says,.
The Oregon Forest Practices Act, established in 1971, bans herbicide spraying within 60 feet of domestic water supplies, or in weather conditions that could carry chemicals off the clear-cut site.
“We’re an extremely regulated industry,” Duncan said. “We replant following harvest, and the use of those herbicides is to help those newly planted trees establish and thrive.”
The industry says that given the sheer size of private forestlands, aerial spraying is the only practical way to kill weeds.
Evidence of exposure
But anti-spray activists such as Justin Workman and Eron King, who live on the opposite side of Triangle Lake from the Rupperts, say large timber companies often flout those rules and face few consequences for it.
They and other spray ban proponents accuse the county of keeping the measure off the ballot at the behest of timber companies — an assertion the county disputes.
The couple said they and their two sons have been sickened by three large aerial-spray chemical drifts since 2009. They were among 43 area residents who had their urine tested in a 2011 study by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for common commercial herbicides such as atrazine and 2,4-D.
The agency’s final report, released in 2014, found “evidence that residents of the investigation area were exposed to pesticides or herbicides in spring and fall 2011. However, it was not possible to confirm if these observed exposures occurred as a result of local application practices or were from other sources.”
Workman and other advocates have faulted the findings, arguing that follow-up urine tests should have been conducted. They say the two state agencies that regulate forest spraying — the departments of forestry and agriculture — should have played a larger role in the study.
The state Department of Agriculture regulates a wide range of pesticide applications, including on farms, timberlands and residential and urban settings.
Relatively few residents ever file complaints with the agency about herbicide use.
The agency each year receives about three citizen complaints relating to all pesticide spraying.
The agency also conducts periodic inspections of companies’ pesticide equipment and records, agency spokesman Bruce Pokarney said. The department issued 24 fines stemming from pesticide sprays last year, with most of the fines ranging from $400 to $3,000. Half of the penalties were issued for “faulty, careless or negligent pesticide application activities,” records show. It’s unclear whether any of the fines were for aerial forestry spraying. None of the fines were issued to large timber companies.
“Sometimes it may be just a notice of violation,” Pokarney said of the citations. “But it builds a history with that applicator. It basically puts you on notice that you did something wrong, and we’ll be checking up to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
But residents such as Workman — who says regular spring and fall aerial forestry sprays give his family head and body aches, sore throats and nausea — are unimpressed with the regulatory system.
“There’s nothing you can do about sprays here unless you suffer from organ failure or death,” Workman said. “There is literally no way to prove that was their chemicals in us, concretely in a court of law. It makes you feel helpless, like you can’t do anything about it.”
With the aerial spray ban ballot measure tied up in court, Lane County residents have taken their complaints to Lane County’s five commissioners in what has become a nearly two-month public shaming campaign.
At the start of each Tuesday commissioners’ meeting since Dec. 19, dozens of residents in public comments have berated the county and the commissioners, accusing them of putting timber interests ahead of safety by keeping the measure of the ballot despite the petitioners’ signatures being deemed valid by the Lane County clerk.
Commissioners and county Counsel Stephen Dingle have said the ban supporters don’t understand the neutral role the county must play in making sure a citizen initiative complies with state laws.
Many residents have argued that timber companies could still spray herbicides from trucks or use other ground-based methods if an aerial spray ban is passed.
But timber advocates say banning helicopter sprays would dent an industry that supports thousands of direct and related forest sector jobs and billions of dollars in annual payroll in Lane County.
“Oregon as a whole is the number one softwood lumber state in the nation, and Lane and Douglas counties go back and forth as far as who produces the most, so we’re looking at some of the most productive land in Oregon,” said Duncan, the Oregon Forest and Industries Council spokeswoman.
Without aerial spraying, “That productivity would definitely go down. That’s the reason we have those tools in the first place,” she said.
But for Jenn Ruppert, who watched her children suffer from coughs and migraines after the 2015 spray on Weyerhaeuser land, those comments are typical for an industry she says values profits above safety.
“Financially for them it’s the cheapest, it covers the most ground. But it’s not safe,” Ruppert said. “I feel like it’s just a sad and broken system. People are suffering.”
Weyerhaeuser officials did not return messages from The Register-Guard.
Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com