The state of Oregon is investigating complaints from at least 15 people who said they fell ill after a plane spraying insecticide flew over their homes near Hunter Creek last month.
“It feels like my head is in a vice,” said Jim Sweeney, a Gold Beach resident. “I’ve been sick since they’ve been doing it. I’m thinking about leaving here.”
He and others complained to the state Department of Environmental Quality last spring after a helicopter was seen spraying on private timber lands — in wind whose speed might have spread the poisons over neighboring property.
Their plight has caught the attention of Beyond Toxics, a Eugene-based nonprofit organization that strives to provide a clean environment by eliminating toxins from public places.
That organization has spent the past year sifting through data and compiling a 72-page report to be released Monday outlining what pesticide application is going on — in the air, on the ground, in the water — and how it affects human health.
The report, however, only addresses western Lane County, said Beyond Toxics’ executive director Lisa Arkin.
And the data, kept by the company conducting the spraying, wasn’t easy to obtain, she said.
“You have to go to spray operators to get individual records,” she said. “In Oregon, the public has no right to request to see those records — you can’t even file a request.
“That’s not true in other states. In Washington you can get that kind of information, and agencies play an active role in timber plans that involve the use of pesticides. Here, they have no regulatory responsibility to comment or approve spray plans; they merely file them.”
By law, that information only stays in the spraying company’s files for three years.
“And every day a request was delayed, timber records were allowed to be destroyed,” Arkin said.
Beyond Toxics had to wait for the federal Centers for Disease Control to put pressure on the Oregon State Health Authority to request the records from the state Department of Forestry.
The only reason the CDC even did so was because of a poisoning incident, Arkin said.
“Even after that,” she added, “it took months to get them.”
Who’s to blame?
Crook Timberlands of Coos Bay has been implicated in many of the complaints, but manager Rick Barnes said the accusations are unfounded.
His company, who contracts with Pacific Air Research of White City, didn’t even spray last spring because inclement weather precluded operations until it was too late, he said.
Another complaint originated from residents north of Gold Beach last month, who said helicopters were flying back and forth over Cedar Valley, the next ridgeline to the east of Highway 101.
“There is absolutely no reason for us to have done that,” Barnes said. “The helicopter was in the unit within the ownership of Crook Timberlands. There would be no reason for us to fly back and forth.”
Because they subcontract the work, the timber firm is conducting its own investigation into the allegations.
“We take all the accusations seriously,” he said. “We have nothing to hide. Quite often, we don’t even meet our spraying objectives; the weather is the thing that fouls us up.”
Information he is investigating indicates other private timberland holders were spraying their lands the same day. With 8,500 acres of its own land, Crook Timberland has a lot of neighbors, Barnes said, and he doesn’t know who might have been spraying that day.
The most recent pesticide application was Oct. 16, according to pamphlets posted throughout Gold Beach soliciting comments from people who might have been affected by it.
One was Beau Hanson, who was chopping firewood at his house near Gold Beach when a helicopter flew over several times spraying.
The 26-year-old said he smelled something sweet and tangy before an asthma attack set in. He grabbed his 8-month-old daughter and fled to the house, shutting the windows and doors.
His daughter’s hands and eyes swelled up; Hanson developed a headache, and his asthma didn’t cease for two weeks.
Another woman in the area said a helicopter flew over and she felt as though someone had sprayed insecticide in her mouth. She broke out in a rash on her arms and forehead, developed a headache and experienced stomach cramps.
One of her horses is off its feed; another keeps running into fence posts as if it can’t see.
It’s not just a problem in southwestern Oregon, either.
“We had a troubling incident in Florence, and another in Rockaway Beach,” Arkin said. “But Gold Beach is probably the worst one we know about this year. It’s not right that people should be sickened, frightened, worried. The state needs to do something about this situation.”
She noted that spraying has been banned on federal timber lands since the 1980s.
“And they’re doing just fine,” she said of the forest. “They banned it because, concerns over human health.”
Arkin has been hearing from many Gold Beach and Hunter Creek residents concerned about aerial pesticide spraying.
“There are people who are adamant about ending it; others are more sanguine and want a more collaborative approach,” Arkin said. “Both groups want the (spray companies) to be respectful of environmental health; they just have different approaches about how to do it.”
On the ground
Dick Pedersen, director of the DEQ, visited Gold Beach this summer to solicit input regarding any environmental concern residents had; most of those in attendance complained about the aerial spraying.
A spokesperson in his department this fall said a follow-up discussion with the pilot indicated he had acted within legal parameters and any further investigation must be done by the state departments of forestry or agriculture.
Test results from samples a Department of Agriculture investigator took from the field late last month won’t be available until at least the end of the year.
That doesn’t sit well with residents in the Gold Beach area who believe state agencies are merely passing the buck among one another.
“This guy (investigator) shows up with this 2-by-3 pad — don’t you think they’d be out with some kind of form, a checklist?” Sweeney said. “This whole thing is being buried. The cards are stacked against the whole community. And what’s the state going to do about it? Nothing.”
“This is unacceptable,” Arkin said. “The whole system’s broken.”