Clearcut Chemicals in Triangle Lake
May 14, 2012
By Ingrid Lobet

Oregon is timber country.
 The terrain is steep, dark green, and intensely beautiful. Six million acres of Oregon forest is owned by commercial timber companies. The companies spray the land with herbicide when the trees are young. It’s an efficient way to kill every other plant except for the commercially valuable Douglas fir.

But the timberland region is vast so it’s no wonder many rural Oregon residents don’t know of the extensive use of herbicides. Now residents have become increasingly aware of the practice and a growing number are questioning it.

LOBET: Eleven-year old Rowan Waking steps inside a pen on his family’s country acre near Triangle Lake, Oregon. He proudly feeds his goats.

WAKING: When we got these three, Carmel was more of a baby. And she was a pretty cute baby. She was still getting milk off of Coco, but we weaned her.

LOBET: The family’s home sits between two creeks. Forested mountains rise all around. Rowan’s mom, Eron King, wasn’t surprised when the timber company Weyerhaeuser clear-cut a section. But what came next shocked her.

KING: The first spray that we ever witnessed we could watch from my kids’ bedroom window.

LOBET: A helicopter equipped with spray tanks and nozzles doused the mountain with herbicide.

KING: You would suddenly hear the thunderous roar and the helicopter comes up and over the mountaintop and hovers…

LOBET: King recorded this video of a spray near her house.

KING: It turns around and disappears again. Over and over, sometimes for hours.

LOBET: Oregon law is favorable toward an industry that generates 12.6 billion dollars a year. It doesn’t require companies to inform residents when they are going to spray. So during the spring and fall sprays seasons, King and her partner Justin wait for the rotor sound, so they can call the kids inside.

KING: But we have chickens and goats. I can’t really bring them inside and away from all that. And we eat the eggs and drink the milk and we can only take so many precautions.

LOBET: Not long after the first spray near King’s house, about 200 miles to the south in Selma, Oregon, Gisa Hertler was home with two young kids, when she heard something unusual. She stepped outside.

HERTLER: Because the helicopters came over and I mean it’s interesting and it’s interesting for the kids. And we live, we live at the end of the world, you could say. And we don’t see things like that, and I took the girls outside and we were watching the helicopters. A little after that, we found out that they were actually spraying.

LOBET: This is a common refrain. People know about the log trucks and sawmills, but they don’t know about the spraying.

LOBET: Hertler’s youngest is now four. She lies across her mother’s legs, fast asleep despite having taken a puff of albuterol. Her mother says she’s had asthma since they stepped outside during the spray. In fact all three have been ill.

HERTLER: We are sick constantly. I mean I had in the last year three times pneumonia…

LOBET: She also worries about the family’s animals.

HERTLER: We had a cow where we were waiting every day for her to actually have a baby and she was having symptoms and we even went out in the woods because sometimes they go into the woods to have their babies. She had no baby. My rabbits they had dead birth. And we fed them just from the grass or dandelion or whatever is there. And my cat, one of my cats, she had two times, in that year after the spraying, she had two times dead birth.

LOBET: About 1.1 million pounds of herbicide were sprayed on Oregon’s forests in 2007; it’s the number industry cites as best now that the state no longer keeps records. This is on land owned by Weyerhaeuser, Roseburg Resources, Stimson Lumber. Representatives of these companies and others declined to be interviewed. Some referred questions to Terry Witt, who represented the industry for 25 years. He says aerial spraying is efficient.

WITT: It’s a very economical way to apply a uniform rate of pesticides according to the label.

LOBET: Witt explains timber companies need their trees to be “free to grow.” That means unencumbered by other plants like alder that might spring up quickly after a clear-cut.

WITT: There’s a tremendous seed bank in the ground that when you disturb the soil the seeds start sprouting. And it severely restricts the ability of the seedling to number one, survive, but just as important, if it survives the first couple years, it really prohibits or hampers the growth potential of that seedling.

LOBET: With modern equipment like GPS and maps onboard the helicopters, Witt says, there’s little chance for chemicals to stray off target.

WITT: We believe that if it’s done responsibly and legally, it does not represent an unreasonable harm.

LOBET: But by early last year, some residents near Eron King’s community of Triangle Lake were so concerned they reached out to Dana Barr, a national expert on chemical exposure.

BARR: It seemed like a significant enough situation that it should have at least garnered some attention and should have been evaluated.

LOBET: Barr spent 23 years at the Centers for Disease Control and now has her own lab at Emory University in Atlanta. She tested urine from 41 people, most of them living near Triangle Lake. She found the herbicides atrazine and 2,4-D in every one.

BARR: It was not what I’m used to seeing, that we don’t frequently detect these chemicals in urine samples. It was surprising to find them in all of the samples tested, yes.

LOBET: The results were also surprising because these herbicides are not thought to stay in the body.

BARR: It would either have been a recent exposure or a continual exposure, which would include a recent exposure.

Clearcut Chemicals was a production of the Public Radio International program Living on Earth and the Center for Investigative Reporting.