Clearcut Chemicals in Triangle Lake Part 2
May 15, 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: Some dozen herbicides are commonly used on the forest here. The top five are: glyphosate, that’s what’s in Roundup, also atrazine, 2,4-D, triclopyr and hexazinone.

FENTON: Herbicides are understudied. There’s not a lot of funding for it. But even worse than that is the fact that early life exposures to herbicides are really understudied.

LOBET: Suzanne Fenton is a reproductive endocrinologist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. She says animal studies show some herbicides, including atrazine, can disrupt the development of certain parts of the body when exposure happens during a vulnerable period.

FENTON: 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. It can affect lactation. So it can affect the ability of the mom to provide nutrients to her offspring. In a child and an infant, the gland, the organ in the body may not be well formed, or mature. And as it’s being exposed, it’s changing its life course, the path it’s going to take for the rest of its life.

LOBET: At the University of California Irvine, developmental biologist Bruce Blumberg says this can happen because developing babies and their mothers respond to certain substances in infinitesimal concentrations.

BLUMBERG: So for example the estrogen receptors in a woman’s body is fully saturated at one part per billion of estradiol. The androgen receptor is comparable. So is the thyroid hormone receptor.

LOBET: But that’s not why Stu Turner, an expert in pesticide accidents, is concerned about weed killer in Oregon’s forests. Turner likes herbicides as a tool, but he says Oregon allows pilots to spray in terrain and under conditions that are just too risky for wildlife and people.

TURNER: These pilots are very skilled pilots. I have tremendous, sort of, respect for their technical flying skills. But they are only able to defeat the laws of nature to a certain extent.

LOBET: Turner says the helicopters fly high to clear the tops of trees. They release spray into shifting mountain air currents. It’s not like spraying wheat and cornfields, ten feet off the ground, the way most herbicide is sprayed. Turner points to a photo.

TURNER: You take pictures of a helicopter at that elevation above the ground. You take pictures on frozen, steep, snow-covered ground. That’s directly above the Rogue River or some other major feeder that if it doesn’t have salmon in it, it’s got trout, if it doesn’t have trout, it’s got steelhead. We know that this is damaging, and even if it wasn’t damaging, it’s wrong.

LOBET: Even more concerning, Turner says, is that when herbicides like Roundup or 2,4-D are used on forests, they’re sprayed at more ounces per acre than when they’re used on cropland.

TURNER: And this is what I tell all of my industry people is: You keep it on your block, I don’t have an issue with you. You keep it in your block. The fact is they’re not keeping it in the block. The physical evidence is overwhelming.

LOBET: Weyerhaeuser’s Greg Miller disputes these characterizations. He declined to be interviewed but in an email said licensed staff and the right technology ensure the safe application of herbicide. Company personnel know how to take weather conditions such as temperature and wind into account. And he stresses it’s all according to the law.

The U.S. Forest Service is the other major forestland owner here, and it used to blanket the land with herbicides, including the mixture Agent Orange. Rural residents sued the government to stop the spraying and won. So the national forests in Oregon and Washington haven’t used this practice since 1984. Jim Furnish, a former deputy chief at the U.S. Forest Service, says they found an alternative: hand cutting saplings at just the right time. It was more expensive. But it did the job.

FURNISH: The use of herbicide is not necessary. If you are trying maximize profit, you can make the case herbicides are the best way to control deciduous vegetation and maximize profit. But I would make the argument also that forestry in Oregon is profitable under many difference scenarios. It is some of the best timber growing country in the world.

LOBET: Furnish says there was frustration and grumbling at the Forest Service when the courts took away herbicide, but it was better for the forest.

FURNISH: I mean when you look at a 40 acre clear-cut unit and you drift in some herbicide over and a week later all the deciduous vegetation is dead it’s difficult to imagine that not being a profound impact on the environment.

LOBET: Furnish is surprised the practice is still used on commercial land.

FURNISH: I find it somewhat ironic that this has been almost what 20 years and counting since this practice stopped on national forests lands but it continues even though the issue is the same. If it was stopped because it was perceived as being bad for people and bad for the land why is that not also true?

LOBET: Those who object to forest spraying in Oregon do not have much recourse because of the Right to Farm and Forest Act. Lisa Arkin directs the non-profit Beyond Toxics.

ARKIN: If they call the Oregon Department of Forestry or the Oregon Department and Agriculture they’re going to be told that commercial timber has every right to spray aerially with pesticides because of the Right to Forest Act.

LOBET: Oregon residents don’t even have the right to find out what was sprayed. Physicians who want to know what their patients were exposed to often can’t get records. Even the health department has trouble getting spray records. The Oregon Health Authority asked for data so it could find out what was sprayed when Triangle Lake residents tested positive. Eight months later, the agency still doesn’t have the records.

LOBET: Some residents are becoming impatient. Recently more than 100 people, including Sally Crumb, packed a community meeting to hear from state and federal officials why it’s taking so long to set up air monitors and further urine testing.

CRUMB: People are getting sick and they’re getting hurt and you are talking about a scientific solution that is somewhere in the future. You know we need something done now.

LOBET: Some, like Ellen Mooney, said they’re not worried about forest herbicide spraying.

MOONEY: I’m not concerned with this. What we have is a circumstance where we have a lot of outside people that have moved into our community and now are telling us how to manage our farms.

LOBET: Others, like Eron King, said it was the local school that was the last straw. Forest around the school was cut and sprayed, then the herbicide imazapyr turned up in school drinking water.

KING: I do not think it is okay that my children have 2,4-D and atrazine in them. And I do not think it is okay that children should be allowed to drink water that is contaminated with imazapyr.

LOBET: State health officials sought to reassure residents they’re still on the case. But some parents, convinced that local officials don’t understand the risk, are moving on. They seek a moratorium on spraying the forest.

Our story about the use of herbicides on Oregon forest is a joint project of Living on Earth and the Center for Investigative Reporting.