Over the past six months, Oregon Department of Agriculture investigators dealt with a pilot who filed multiple false reports, eyewitness accounts that didn’t match records and records that didn’t match lab results. That’s just in one case.
So what does the ODA see as its biggest enforcement challenge? Oregon’s public records law.
In reporting on a recent state investigation into alleged overspray in Curry County, Ore., OPB and EarthFix filed multiple public recordsrequests with the ODA, the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Oregon Health Authority. In April, the requests came back withthousands of related emails and documents.
One of those showed that in the view of ODA Pesticide Program Manager Dale Mitchell, the request itself was the agency’s biggest enforcement challenge.
In March, Mitchell received an email from a University of California, Davis professor who coordinates a course specifically designed to educate pesticide enforcement managers. For an assignment, she asked Mitchell about his agency’s three biggest enforcement challenges.
Mitchell’s response, in order: Oregon’s public records law, inter-agency communication and communicating with the public and the media.
That response came as his agency was juggling multiple records requests and communication breakdowns between investigators and the public that the ODA says no one was happy about.
The ODA had a long-standing policy of not releasing any documents related to an investigation until it was complete, which OPB and others challenged. The policy, as it turns out, violated Oregon’s public records law. In March, the Oregon Department of Justice responded to a petition from the advocacy group Beyond Toxics, ordering the ODA to disclose the requested documents.
Reporters and advocates weren’t the only ones stymied by the ODA’s interpretation of public records law.
That list includes the federal government.
Partway into that case, local residents via Beyond Toxics also petitioned the Center for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to look into their case. The federal agency asked the ODA for any data from the investigation.
Mitchell treated it as a public records request.
“It’s very odd,” said Richard Kauffman, a former regional coordinator for the CDC agency who retired in February after working on the southern Oregon case. “Most agencies wouldn’t treat us in that regard and would be quite cooperative. We have a long history with Oregon Department of Agriculture feeling, I guess pressured by the ATSDR, CDC to perform better.”
A few years ago, Kauffman attended a meeting of Oregon’s Pesticide Analytical Response Center and informed them that, in his agency’s opinion, their investigations were seriously lacking adequate data and documentation.
This time around, emails indicate ODA did have some concerns about the CDC’s involvement.
“They feel we’re more or less trouble when we show up at their site, where they have to be careful how they behave,” Kauffman said. “We kind of call them to task when we don’t think they’re doing what they should be doing. They don’t particularly like our involvement. That’s the impression that I got.”
— Tony Schick