Oregonians fear harmful effects from timberland herbicides

Video: Serene Fang
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BLACHLY, Ore. – Six years ago, Eron King, an artist and young mother, moved from the edge of Eugene to a creekside plot of forest valley so her two boys could grow up raising hens and Toggenburg goats. 

She wasn’t naïve about rural life in Oregon, where she’d lived for nine years. The state’s western third is timber country. The tractor-trailer rigs hauling logs – some as thin as poles, others as fat as pier pilings – were no shock to her. 

“I knew clear-cutting happened,” she said in a cadence that signals comfort with the realities of a life outdoors.

But like many residents of the region, King was unaware that major timber companies – Weyerhaeuser, Roseburg Resources, Stimson Lumber, Seneca Jones and others – have been spraying millions of pounds of herbicide on their private forestland in Oregon.

Some of it, she believes, is carried by the winds and lands on her property. 

Her worry about the spraying has turned into genuine alarm. King and her two children, along with their father and 37 other residents, last year submitted their urine for laboratory testing. The results were startling: Every person tested positive for the compound 2,4-D – made famous as an ingredient of Agent Orange – and for the chemical atrazine.

Clear-cut hillsides are aerially doused, often multiple times, with chemical agents designed to destroy all plants except the Douglas fir, the midnight-green monarch that is a symbol of the state and even graces license plates here. 

When forested land is clear-cut, the sun strikes ground that was shaded for decades. Dormant seeds wake up; grasses and other swift opportunists compete with the Douglas fir nursery starts. 

For the $13 billion Oregon timber industry – which employs an estimated 30,000 people – forestland free of alder, Scotch broom and blackberry is considered critical.

Herbicide sprayed on cut forestland is supposed to stay on company land. But a growing number of Oregonians suspect chemicals carried on the capricious currents of these mountains do not obey human intentions. 

There are signs, they say: the absence of fish jumping, a smell on the afternoon breeze, a grapevine suddenly dead, a litter of aborted rabbits. 

Three years ago, King had an epiphany after reading the Eugene Weekly, which regularly prints notices about the areas where timber companies are spraying. She found one for Fish Creek. 

I live on Fish Creek, she thought. 

Not long after that, King and her partner, Justin, and their sons, Rowan and Tobbe, then 8 and 3, heard helicopters cresting the ridge that faces their house.

“The first spray we ever witnessed, we could watch from my kids’ bedroom window,” King remembers. “They saw the spray.”

Since then, twice a year a helicopter sprays somewhere in the steep slopes around her home. Short-hosed nozzles spread out on a metal bar beneath the fuselage release the spray. King said she hears the helicopters in the fall and the spring. The job can last several hours.

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Eron King’s son Rowan, 11, holds one of the family’s chickens. “The first spray we ever witnessed, we could watch from my kids’ bedroom window,” Eron King says.

Credit: Serene Fang/Center for Investigative Reporting

“As soon as I hear the helicopters in the morning, I can call the kids inside,” King said. “But, I mean, you can’t just vacate the land within five minutes of hearing a helicopter. What about our animals? The goats, those are the big thing, and the chickens? Their barn is open.”

It’s unclear how many residents have been affected by the spraying, though a rough estimate based on U.S. Census data shows about 100,000 residents live near privately owned forests in Oregon. 

For a fee, the Oregon Department of Forestry sends King notifications when timber companies plan to spray. But the time windows for spraying are so wide – several months, even a year – it’s difficult to judge when to stay inside. 

So far, she’s received 75 spray notices for parcels nearby and upstream, with some forms listing as many as a dozen chemicals.

For the timber industry, herbicide has become an essential tool. Without it, much forestland would not be profitable, said Terry Witt, who for 25 years was executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, a trade group for the timber, agriculture and chemicals industries.  

Weeds and brush represent competition for water and sunlight. “It really prohibits or hampers the growth potential of that seedling,” said Witt, now a consultant. 

Witt said spraying chemicals from the air – especially with the aid of global positioning systems – is “a very economical way to apply a uniform rate of pesticides according to the label.” 

“If there's data that shows that the practices need to be altered or changed, the industry is more than willing to look at what recommendations or change in practices could be employed.”

But Witt added: “We believe that if it’s done responsibly and legally, it does not represent unreasonable harm.”

Heavy applications

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Forensic agronomist Stu Turner says terrain and mountain weather make it risky to spray forest herbicide in Oregon.

Credit: Serene Fang/Center for Investigative Reporting

Stu Turner, whose father pioneered crop-aviation insurance in the 1950s and who investigates cases of misapplication of pesticides, is offended by what is allowed in Oregon. 

At his computer screen, Turner points to video he shot of fog drifting up and down like apparitions, moving in three directions at once in a dark green, plunging valley. 

“Anyone who hunts around here knows that you get up early to hunt and you want to hunt uphill because that cool air is still moving downhill,” said Turner, whose basement trophy room at his home in West Richland, Wash., displays timber wolf, bull elk, arctic fox and pronghorn. 

The steep, uneven terrain, he said, forces pilots to fly at heights that would not be tolerated in crop agriculture: 50, 70 or 80 feet up. For regular crops, he said, 10 feet is normal.

Turner clicks on a photo of a Bell 206 JetRanger helicopter, its tank filled with weed killer in preparation for a run. The copter’s skids rest on a slick of ice. 

“You can see the ground is frozen,” he said. “It’s got snow on it. They’re putting pesticides on snow. When that snow melts, it’s … runoff. Just out of this picture here is the Rogue River.”

But Turner’s biggest concern isn’t just that herbicide is applied too high, or that it drifts on unpredictable mountain currents, or that it’s sprayed on frozen ground in Oregon. He said timber companies spray herbicide on forestland at more pints per acre than would be acceptable in crop agriculture. 

The most heavily applied compound, glyphosate, typically is sprayed here at a rate far higher than on cornfields, Turner said. The compound 2,4-D is the third-most heavily applied herbicide and typically is applied on Oregon forestlands at a much higher rate than used on wheat fields, he said.

Most timber companies declined to be interviewed for this story. 

But in an email, Greg Miller of Weyerhaeuser disputed some of Turner’s claims. He said skilled personnel know how to take into account conditions such as temperature and wind. The applications are done according to the law, Miller wrote. And once Douglas fir trees are established, he said, companies do not continue to spray. 

“We use procedures that ensure the safe application of these products, including technology and professional licensed expertise to make sure the chemical is correctly applied,” Miller wrote.

Miller said it would be misleading for residents to assume that forestland owners are spraying everywhere in the spring and fall. “In the Coast Range,” he said, “herbicides may be used two or three times during a forest’s growing cycle because of conditions that favor aggressive brush.”

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Terry Witt with the trade group Oregonians for Food and Shelter says herbicide is an essential forestry tool, applied safely by trained personnel.

Credit: Serene Fang/Center for Investigative Reporting

The Oregon Department of Agriculture does not track how many pounds of herbicide are used to kill plants in the forest each year. One tally performed in 2007, the year Terry Witt cites as most representative, shows timbers companies used 1.1 million pounds – a fraction of the total spray because the figure represents only the active ingredient part in undiluted containers.

It does not include the diesel fuel or kerosene, for example, often mixed when spraying the herbicide triclopyr.

And it does not include the agent mixed with glyphosate to make a version of Roundup that tenderizes a leaf’s defenses so that glyphosate can enter the plant. Those additives have been shown to make Roundup more dangerous for living things than Roundup’s active ingredient alone, according to several peer-reviewed studies.

Glyphosate is the most heavily sprayed herbicide in Oregon forests.

The second-most heavily used chemical is atrazine. The chemical is believed by a number of researchers to interfere with the delicate but crucial chemistry related to puberty, regulation of menstruation and the development of healthy breast tissue. It is also suspected of converting testosterone to female hormones in some species.

Researchers now believe brief exposures to some chemicals during critical periods such as pregnancy can have lifelong and even trans-generational effects. 

“We’ve shown that 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,” said Suzanne Fenton, an endocrinologist and expert on atrazine at the National Toxicology Program and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, whose lab works with rats and mice.

Many researchers consider herbicides understudied, despite the fact that they’ve been around for decades. Chemicals designed to kill plants simply haven’t attracted the kind of attention that compounds designed to kill insects or rodents have.

Developmental biologist Bruce Blumberg of the University of California, Irvine, said receptors in a woman’s body respond to estrogen at less than one part per billion. In other words, the amount of these substances needed to make significant changes in the body is, as biologist Sandra Steingraber puts it, “vanishingly small.” 

Resident opposition

In parts of the Coast Range, there has been opposition since the 1970s to the practice of spraying weed killer, including Agent Orange, in the national forests here. 

In Triangle Lake in 2005, Day Owen formed a group called the Pitchfork Rebellion in opposition to the current spraying. That same year, another group called Forestland Dwellers formed prayer circles in front of timber company offices, including Roseburg Resources, Giustina Land & Timber, Weyerhaeuser, Zip-O-Log Mills and Transition Management Inc.

Other groups have popped up. Outside of Grants Pass, a group of concerned residents operates near the little town of Selma.

Sensing a common fear about the spraying, Lisa Arkin, executive director of the Eugene nonprofit Beyond Toxics, started a monthly call-in for these far-flung detachments called the Oregon Pesticide Action Working Group. On the calls, Arkin said, there’s a steady stream of complaints.

For Eron King and her neighbors, a watershed moment came in January 2011, when pesticide exposure expert Dana Barr, who runs a lab at Emory University, visited Oregon State University for a presentation. Hearing the stories of residents, Barr offered to test their urine.

Forty-one people, including King’s two children, submitted their urine to Barr’s laboratory through a medical clinic. Barr found 2,4-D and atrazine metabolites in the urine of every person tested, including the children. 

“We don’t frequently detect these chemicals in urine samples,” said Barr, who worked for more than two decades for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Because the compounds are transient, she said, “It would either have been a recent exposure or a continual exposure.”

After the testing, Barr wondered: If she found the only two compounds she tested for in every person, what else could she have found? She tested only for two of the approximately one dozen herbicides commonly used in forestry. (The two with the best-established testing protocol.) What else was out there? 

She presented the urine results in April 2011 to the Oregon Board of Forestry and members of the community. In July, officials from Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry arrived for a community hearing. Their demeanor seemed sharp and attentive. They pledged follow-up studies. 

‘I’ve never fully recovered’

Orville Camp, 76, is slim and sturdy. You could imagine him rendered from the same forest where he’s a fourth-generation homesteader, millworker and, for years now, forest educator. From his pickup, he points out the one-room schoolhouse he attended through the eighth grade. 

He and his wife, Mary, own 237 acres of his family’s original expanse outside of Selma, including one parcel of regrown forest they call Ecostry. Their home is nestled within that forest, next to Camp Creek. They keep a bulldozer nearby for earthwork, among their current sources of income. 

The Camps’ place is at the bottom of a funnel, with hills on three sides that drain rainwater down into an old concrete-lidded pipeworks that Orville connected decades ago to his underground cistern. The hills are owned by Perpetua Forests Co., which in a weeks-long exertion of chomping and grinding, and to the Camps’ unending grief, clear-cut its land in 2008. 

Unlike a number of people interviewed, Orville Camp had known about the practice of herbicide spray for years. When word came that Perpetua planned to spray the land above them, they lobbied the company. They tried to raise money to buy the land. The forest, they argued, was coming back by itself. But the parties could not agree over access to the property. The land sale went nowhere.

Then in September 2010, while taking a walk, the Camps felt the afternoon breeze carry something different, but familiar – something chemical. 

They noticed plants were wilting on the Perpetua property. Then, Orville Camp said, a breeze came down the canyon and he breathed something in. 

Several hours later, life had changed. He woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning, disoriented, and couldn’t remember anything for days.

“For the first time, I could relate to how people with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) feel,” he said. “My brain wasn’t seeing things in proportion. And I’ve always been really grounded. It got better over time, but I’ve never fully recovered.”

Orville Camp went to the doctor within 24 hours, had his liver enzymes tested. They were high. He claims he rarely experiences so much as a single headache. 

Mary Camp is incensed. 

“I would like people to know this is happening,” she said. “That people are being poisoned without their knowledge, without their permission, and that the state of Oregon is not protecting the community from harm to health.”

The Camps, like many people here, can’t find out what was sprayed on the land adjoining them. They asked a Perpetua employee and were told it was imazapyr. 

But when the Camps checked with the local forester, he said imazapyr wasn’t on the company’s notification to the state, so it couldn’t have been sprayed. The forester said it was triclopyr.

The effect of herbicides such as imazapyr and triclopyr on fetuses and pregnant women are “really understudied,” said Fenton, the endocrinologist.

Information hard to find

Federal and state law does not require timber companies to notify residents of the compounds being sprayed. Even for state health workers, it's a trial to pin down exactly what has been applied. When the Oregon Health Authority followed up on Barr’s urine results, it sought the spray records for the Triangle Lake area. Most of Barr’s study subjects were from Triangle Lake and areas around Highway 36.

It turned out that the law required the health department to ask the Oregon forestry and agriculture departments to ask the timber companies. It could not obtain the records directly. It took eight months for the health authority to receive them. 

The federal toxic substances agency and the EPA, meanwhile, in collaboration with the state, followed up on Barr’s work with another round of urine tests, conducted in the off-season. They found 2,4-D in 59 of 64 people tested. 

In April 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture tested the well water at Triangle Lake Charter School and found it contained another forestry herbicide, imazapyr. 

This spring, the Oregon Health Authority tabled a follow-up effort to test residents during the spray season. The agency’s plan depended on close collaboration with industry to let the health authority know where atrazine and 2,4-D would be sprayed. But the notifications never came. Nobody was spraying in Triangle Lake this spring.  

Air testing also will have to wait. The EPA promised last summer to deploy air monitors, but the agency now says even testing for 2,4-D and atrazine will require methods it has yet to develop.  

From the perspective of concerned residents, there has been one positive development: Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s natural resources policy director Richard Whitman met with them. They asked him for a spray moratorium. 

The U.S. Forest Service, the other major timber grower in Oregon, gave up nearly all herbicide use in the Northwest back in the 1980s. (Herbicides are severely limited today and never involve spraying from aircraft.) Fierce opposition from residents in the Coast Range led to a series of court injunctions that shut down the practice.

“I find it somewhat ironic,” said Jim Furnish, who managed the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon in the 1990s, “that this it has been – what? – 20 years and counting since this practice stopped on national forestlands. But it continues on industry land.”

When the courts took away herbicides from the Forest Service in the Northwest, foresters went back to other, more traditional tools. They waited for red alder saplings to exhaust themselves with rapid spring growth, and then cut them. The method severely limited the trees’ capacity to grow back.  

“It was more costly, more labor intensive. But forestry in Oregon is profitable under many different scenarios,” said Furnish, who later became deputy chief of the Forest Service. “The Forest Service just saddled itself to a different horse and rode off into the future.”

This story was produced in collaboration with Living on Earth, Public Radio International's environmental news magazine. It was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

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