Low-wattage legislators dim the lights on forestry practices reform

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A year ago the editors of the Register Guard urged Oregon legislators to “shine a light on forest sprays.” Our low-wattage legislators did the opposite. Today aerial forest spraying continues unabated.

Communities sprayed with poisons remain in the dark while chemical lobbyists hold sway in the offices and back rooms of our legislature. The response from Oregon’s Legislature? No change to Oregon’s infamously outdated and weak Forest Practices Act.

Our lawmakers have a long and snuggly relationship with these industries. In the 1980’s, regulations imposed a 500-foot no-spray buffer around homes. Timber lobbyists raised a ruckus, legislators blinked, and all buffer zones were eliminated.

Here in Oregon, our forestry regulations promote forest defoliation strategies reminiscent of wartime Vietnam. But today’s battle-zone casualties are humble neighbors and defenseless schoolchildren.

Industrial lumber companies load helicopter tanks with toxic chemicals, and, just as Agent Orange was used in Vietnam, herbicide defoliants rain down on hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland. These sprays are not well controlled—because effective restraints do not exist. Repeatedly, a wide swath of herbicide drift coats communities, schools, children, food crops, drinking water sources, pets.

We acted on this ongoing tragedy. Beyond Toxics brought the issue, the science and the voices of Oregonians to this year’s legislative session. Along with many rural Oregonians, we sought reasonable remedies.

On our side, members of the public–who traveled hundreds of miles at their own expense for a chance to give three minutes of testimony–were sorely disappointed in the so-called democratic process. Rural Oregonians made sick by herbicide sprays were never given a chance to testify because “public hearings” were cancelled at the last minute or switched to “invited testimony only.” At one point, a few regular citizens were begrudgingly allowed just two minutes each before a legislative committee to describe their ordeals. As they began to testify, some legislators got up and walked out. It was clear that timber and chemical industry representatives had already met privately with them.

With very few exceptions, Democrats and Republicans alike hit the off-switch on reform. They don’t want you to know that Oregon is the worst in the entire West when it comes to preventing pesticide exposures. A 2011 US EPA report found that Oregon lacks adequate water protection buffers, weather-related best management practices to control drift, and human health guidelines.  No, we won’t find it explicitly written into law, but the effect is the same as if it was: Oregon regulations encourage forest practices that result in pesticide poisoning.

For every reasonable solution we offered, the timber lobby’s knee-jerk reaction was to keep Oregon in the Dark Ages. Discussions about the science on pesticide drift and toxicity were quickly curtailed.

But we kept trying. The conversation went like this…

Beyond Toxics: We propose advanced notification of aerial herbicide spraying.

The industry’s response: “Not necessary because industrial timber is a good neighbor!” (Translation: the sound of approaching chopper blades is as good a warning as neighbors will ever get.)

Beyond Toxics: We suggest that the Oregon Board of Forestry study the current science on pesticide drift and buffers and use the information to update the law.

The industry’s response: “That’s a non-starter.” (Translation: industry doesn’t want Oregon’s laws in line with current science!)

Beyond Toxics: How about agreeing on a 100 ft. no-spray buffer to protect kids at school?

Industry: “Nope. That hurts our profit margin!” (Translation: the health of Oregon’s school children is not worth taking any precautions!  We are not required to give kids any protections, unlike salmon that are protected by law under the Endangered Species Act.)

Beyond Toxics: Spray and weather data should be provided to the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Industry: “A solution in search of a problem!” (Translation: We prefer the “scout’s honor” system where no one really checks on what we are doing.)

The 2015 Public Health and Drinking Water Protection Act was a real opportunity to make these and other substantive improvements to Oregon’s forest practices. Instead, legislators did their utmost to keep the issue quiet. And legislators kept important personal stories of acute and chronic illnesses associated with aerial spraying from seeing the light of day.

As this session neared its end, one legislative observer noted, “The sound of an approaching helicopter will remain Oregonians’ only formal notice that chemicals are about to be sprayed next door.”

We are still optimistic. We believe there is some daylight ahead at the end of the tunnel. Reporters from Portland to Miami to Washington, DC are chronicling Oregon’s repeated failure to prevent the toxic aerial spraying of innocent bystanders and industry workers. Our nation now reads troubling accounts about our Oregon men coughing up blood and our children having trouble breathing after helicopters spray poison brews from the sky near or on their homes.

Importantly, journalists are uncovering another disturbing pattern. State agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture–rather than protecting the public—repeatedly cast aspersions on the integrity of rural residents who speak up about pesticide drift. Reporters find that protocols for conducting pesticide investigations are woefully deficient and, in any case, routinely ignored and subverted.  And investigators wait too many days to respond to poisonings so that corroborating data are lost. Pesticide spray records are withheld from health providers desperate to treat patients. Agencies don’t even know where and when helicopters are flying and what they are spraying.

Thanks to the brave testimony of rural Oregonians and to the careful reporting of respected journalists, these and other gross injustices caused by aerial forest spraying are being illuminated. Despite their deep pockets, their relentless political influence and persistent marketing, the timber and chemical industries are unable to bury the truth.

Salem lawmakers now have the opportunity to wake up and start a bright new day of meaningful reform. They can choose to truly represent the public interest and lift Oregon from the lowest ranking of protections from forest defoliants. And yes, Beyond Toxics will be there, shining a light on the path to a healthy Oregon.

Lisa Arkin,
Executive Director
Beyond Toxics