SALEM, Ore. — Eight months after they first complained an aerial herbicide spray doused them and their property, residents of Curry County got the chance to ask Oregon lawmakers to tighten the state’s pesticide rules.
During a legisative hearing Wednesday, four community members told lawmakers the state’s protection of their health was inadequate.
“Our rights and our property, our health, our animals — everything has been violated,” Cedar Valley resident John Burns said during the meeting of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “We want to change these laws because what has happened to us is not right. It’s criminal.”
Last fall, dozens of residents in the Cedar Valley community near Gold Beach, Oregon, complained that herbicides from a helicopter spraying nearby timberland made them and their animals sick. The state released its investigation in April concluding the spraying helicopter, owned by Pacific Air Research, did allow herbicides to fall on to residents’ properties.
Later in April, an EarthFix investigation revealed the state’s system for pesticide regulation fails to provide residents adequate notice about nearby spraying and that its responses to pesticide complaints are rife with miscommunication and incapable of answering questions about human exposure.
“Why do we have to keep chasing everyone around the entire state to get answers?” Burns asked. “We didn’t get the answers on what the poisons were until April 8. And that is absolutely a crime.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, the senate committee questioned officials from Oregon’s health, agriculture and forestry departments about why communication failed and why a more robust public health response didn’t occur.
“Was there an immediate response from the public health department warning everybody in the area that people have been sprayed in the area, please report to your local physician or give us a call? It’s public health we’re talking about here. What was the response at that point?” asked Sen. Alan Bates, who is a Medford Democrat and a physician.
The capacity for local public health response is limited, Katrina Hedberg of the Oregon Health Authority said in response. In addition, she said, such a response falls outside the typical role of her agency.
Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, asked why the response for toxic chemicals sprayed over people’s homes appears to be slower and less thorough than for quart of oil spilled in the ocean.
“With something like this it takes the better part of a year to study it, and the people who are allegedly responsible, they’re still out there waiting for their day in court, too,” he said. “I just don’t understand why this has taken so long.”
Oregon Department of Agriculture Deputy Director Lisa Hanson told the committee it takes the agency an average of six months to complete an investigation.
Jim Welsh of Dallas, Oregon, spoke on behalf of his father, Jim Welsh, who was a witness to the spray and state investigation before he died in April. He said he was disappointed the state put the importance of its regulatory enforcement case above public health.
James Aldrich, who claims he is still sick from the spray, said as a career logger he supports the timber industry but wants stronger protection for the health of nearby communities and their drinking water.
“They’ve sprayed around here numerous times and we never, ever have been notified,” Aldrich said. “I’m here today to ask you people to take into consideration to change the law in Oregon, for human health.”
Before the hearing, committee chairman Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said he tried to enter with an open mind about whether this case was an anomaly or whether the rules needed to change. After, he said he was pleased to see agencies were already evaluating their own responses to the case and determining what they have to change, and that he’d like to hear from the agencies again in September.
“We will be coming back to this issue,” Dembrow said.
Rep. Wayne Krieger, R-Gold Beach, said many questions remain unanswered about these chemicals and their effects on humans and wildlife. Krieger, who owns a tree farm, sits on the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources and attended the Wednesday hearing.
“I’m very interested to see where this goes and what we can learn from it,” Krieger said, “because I think we’ve got a lot more investigating to do to come up with any type of recommendations.”