Jim Sweeney of Gold Beach understands the importance of timber to the economy.
He doesn’t begrudge the timber owners their right to spray herbicides to give fledgling trees a better chance of growing.
But he doesn’t want the stuff on his land, in the air he breathes, or in the water into which the chemicals can seep.
He and seven other citizens expressed that concern to Department of Environmental Quality Director Dick Pedersen in Gold Beach last Friday. He was here to listen to environmental issues about which citizens are worried and take those comments to appropriate agency heads.
Other issues addressed included dredging — and the lack thereof — the effect of federal sequestration on funding for the DEQ, and well and septic testing. But the aerial spraying of herbicides by privately owned timber lands took center stage.
“You spill a quart of oil in the ocean and it’s treated as a hazardous material spill,” Sweeney said earlier this month.
“But they’re getting away with spraying over millions of gallons of this into our water? Our air? And you can smell it a mile away,” he said.
He’s tried to find out what chemicals were being sprayed but time periods in which chemicals are sprayed can be an entire year and the list of chemicals might or might not be what’s being put on the ground. Or in the air. And the water.
One of those herbicides has Sweeney disturbed. It is a mixture of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acids.
“I don’t care what you call it,” Sweeney said. “It’s Agent Orange.”
A helicopter misted his property earlier this spring, and he and others are concerned that a 211-acre planned spraying outside Gold Beach will affect river water — and thus, drinking water — fisheries and other downstream interests.
Helicopters are often the only way to disseminate the chemicals in Oregon’s rugged timber country, and they often have to fly at higher elevations — 80 feet, compared to 10 to 20 feet for typical commercial crop spraying.
That, critics say, increases the chance of chemical mists wafting on even gentle winds and onto neighboring private property — and public waterways. Sweeney obtained weather reports from a nearby weather station that indicated wind gusts of 27 mph that day.
“I live at 1,500 feet (elevation), and with 27 mile-an-hour wind gusts I think it’s fair to say it traveled miles and miles,” he said. “Until we get a handle on what’s going on, it should be banned.”
Sweeney said he’s requested pilot logs from the helicopter and other information from numerous state agencies and is directed, time after time, to another organization. Or he’s told the information he’s requesting is proprietary information.
“I asked the pilot and was denied,” he said. “He said it was ‘because you’ll want more.’ No, I just want some transparency.”
Spraying defoliants and other herbicides on national forest lands became illegal in Oregon in the 1980s, but is still permitted on private timber lands. It’s regulated by the state Department of Forestry, which requires helicopter pilots to identify a window of time in which they plan to spray and list the chemicals they’re going to use.
Residents in the area can also request to be placed on a list to be notified when the spraying is scheduled so they can take precautions, if so desired.
Pedersen said testing for pesticides is “very expensive, and takes very sophisticated equipment,” but that the state plans to increase its capabilities in that arena.
Another in attendance said he worries about spraying and its impacts on his attempts to get his farm certified as organic.
“They’re spraying right up against my property,” he said, adding that his land has a large pond that could be affected. “It’s far from non-toxic, biodegradable. With all the Monsanto crap being shoved down our throats, this is the last thing we need.”
Some said they felt the agencies in charge of issuing permits, namely the Department of Forestry, were not just self-serving, but self-regulating as well.
“If we’re empowering these people to do this, they’d better be responsible,” Sweeney said. “And they’re clearly not being responsible.”
Carl King of Nesika Beach said he wished citizens were more involved in the permitting process — despite its opportunities for public comment.
“With a permitting process, people respected the process; you tend to end up with a permit that never got appealed,” he said. “But in Curry County, you’re called a terrorist if you question any project on environmental grounds. This attitude that we don’t have to pay attention to permit because ‘We’re in Oregon’ has got to stop.”
Pedersen encouraged people to “be vocal and push agencies to pay attention, work with people and talk with organizations.”
“All this is real,” he said. “We don’t know the impacts of these pesticides at low levels across the state. It’s showing up in waterways. It’s out there in our environment — everywhere.”
“The more I research this, there’s nothing more to do than stop the aerial spraying in this area,” Sweeney said. “And I don’t think that’s going to happen. People need to be aware of what’s going on. The whole county needs to know about this.
“When I get these flight records and if there’s any difference between what’s he’s (the pilot) recorded and what the weather station recorded, let the public make up their own mind,” he added. “If you don’t think it affects everyone, it does.”