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Man fined for lying during herbicide spraying probe

The state of Oregon has fined the owner of a company that sprayed Cedar Valley residents with herbicides almost a year ago — not for making 40 residents fall ill, but for lying in the ensuing investigation.

Steven Owen, the applicator found responsible in the incident, has been fined a $10,000 civil penalty for providing false and misleading information in connection with the application northwest of Gold Beach. 

Additionally, the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) has revoked Owen’s license and fined his company, Pacific Air Research, of White City a corresponding $10,000 fine.

Residents last October complained after a helicopter flew over their properties and sprayed them with a cocktail of herbicides that lead to respiratory ailments, general malaise, rashes, blurry eyesight, headaches and other maladies. A horse was reported to have gone blind and a dog lost so much weight after the incident, it had to be euthanized this spring.

A laboratory analysis of vegetation samples collected by ODA officials a week later confirmed the presence of the pesticide 2,4-D — used in Agent Orange — and triclopyr, a known endocrine disruptor, on residential properties.

The ODA worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Oregon Department of Forestry. The ODA took over the “enforcement action” against Pacific Air Research and Owen for providing false and misleading information; the EPA is pursuing other action on other violations related to the pesticide application.

Residents have indicated that, while they are concerned about their health, they were also angered about the possible contamination to local streams that supply their drinking water and support salmon and other native fish.

The investigation results — for which residents of Cedar Valley have been anxiously awaiting — indicate Owen violated the Oregon Pesticide Control Law through “gross negligence and willful misconduct.” The fines and suspension are the maximum actions allowed under law for this type of violation.

ODA investigators determined that Owen “provided multiple false records that misled ODA about the actual products used,” and “received limited cooperation and misleading information from Pacific Air Research, which led to a complex, difficult and lengthy investigative process.”

“I’m glad they went with the maximum,” said County Commissioner Susan Brown, who worked with residents regarding the incident. “There really was the blatant misrepresentation, the misleading information. I think that’s what bothered them the most. They really had to dig to get it.”

Residents reaction

Jim Sweeney said he’s glad some action was taken — especially since it could easily have been overlooked if citizens hadn’t complained.

“But it still doesn’t solve the problem,” he said. “The whole point is, they can even be in compliance, but once the fog rolls in, the rain comes, the toxins are still in the air, the soil and water.”

Kathryn Ricard, who still suffers from itchy eyes and stomach ailments, is angry investigators took so long — seven days — to get to the site and collect samples, and that the fines to the spraying company are so little.

“I don’t think they fined him for all the violations they could have,” she said. “They didn’t fine him for sprinkling that stuff over fish-bearing streams. It doesn’t satisfy the $6,000 for the loss of my dog, the veterinary bills, my eyes, my sinuses, my husband’s eyes.”

Ricard and Sweeney declined to say if the residents plan to file a class action suit.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Brown said. “They kind of set themselves up that way with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control). If you read through that document, the petition, they laid out all the human impacts.”

What irritates Ricard now is that spraying continues in the area, and no one is addressing how chemical application, in general, can be changed, either locally, or at the state level.

“It’d take civil unrest before they’d take notice,” Sweeney said of state officials. “The commissioners aren’t going to do anything about it; they won’t officially take a stand on an issue. It’s going to have to be a vote of the people.”

What’s next?

Those who were affected by the spraying last October plan to continue educating the public about chemicals, how they are used locally and what can be done to avoid health problems in connection with them.

The Cedar Valley residents have already suggested to county commissioners the use of jail inmates to manually apply herbicides or pull weeds instead of spraying along roadsides, banning aerial spraying throughout the state — the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t allow such activity on its land, they oft note — or banning spraying over water tributaries.

“They won’t even look at the different options,” Ricard said. “In the long run, it’d save them money. There’s the chemicals, hiring the helicopter, the liability. …”

“If all that was sprayed was (treated) mechanically?” Sweeney said, “all that income would come back to our town, instead of going to the chemical cartels.”

They agree the county could implement fees to pay for monitoring, notification and permitting of aerial spraying, and could enact stronger ordinances to protect the citizenry.

Some residents will speak at a second Senate Committee meeting in Salem next month. Last time, the citizens were given limited opportunity to speak, and were surrounded by lobbyists and other representatives of the chemical industry, Ricard said.

“We’re interested in how our state is going to start looking at this,” she said. “It needs to come from the higher-ups. There are different ways to combat the problem. But they just keep talking, keep shoving the paper back and forth. No one’s making an active plan.”

“We presented some jaw-dropping information last time,” Sweeney said. “But it wasn’t until the Attorney General stepped in and said, ‘You will tell these people what they want to know,’ that the ball started to roll. It’s going to have to come from the people to stop this. We all have to go after them.”

Pacific Air Research and Owen can contest the fines — Sweeney said the ODA said the company plans to — through an administrative hearing. The penalties and license revocations will be final once the appeals process is done.

“We’re frustrated,” Ricard said. “We live in this county, along with timber owners, and they don’t seem greatly concerned about anything other than the bottom line. At some point, people have to stop being so greedy.”

“We need to have a clean community, health forests,” Brown said. “We don’t need to poison our residents to get that. We can have both without killing one or the other.”

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