The helicopter pilot Southern Oregon residents claim dropped poison on them won’t be operating again any time soon if the state has its way.
After an investigation into an herbicide application gone wrong back in October, the Oregon Department of Agriculture issued a $10,000 fine to both Pacific Air Research, Inc. and its owner, Steve Owen, and revoked his license to apply pesticides in Oregon for one year. Owen and the company can ODA’s actions through an administrative hearing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has an ongoing investigation into the incident.
Owen had been contracted by timber owners to apply herbicides on recent clear cut sites in Curry County. In doing so, he ferried a helicopter loaded with herbicides over homes in nearby Cedar Valley, spraying or spilling — the state can’t say which — the pesticides 2,4-D and Triclopyr onto residential properties.
The spill prompted dozens of complaints and reported illnesses. Owen later provided false records of what he’d sprayed.
After struggling for months to get the basic facts of the case — which investigators say was in no small part because of Owen’s lack of cooperation — the state has now determined Owen “violated the Oregon Pesticide Control Law through gross negligence and willful misconduct.” The fine and license revocation are the maximum allowed for those types of infractions under state law.
It’s a severe sanction and an extreme case for an agency that boasts of a highly cooperative relationship with the pesticide applicators it regulates.
The Agriculture Department’s director and lead investigator both called the case one of, if not the, most difficult and complex cases they’d handled. They blamed the pilot. Outside experts, including a former federal investigator involved in the case, disagreed, saying the state mishandled the case.
Throughout the case, multiple gaps in the state’s regulation and investigation of forest herbicide use were revealed: Applicators aren’t required to file records with the state, the state took no drinking water or urine samples, residents and their health care providers couldn’t get chemical information from the state for months, the agency treated an inquiry from a federal health agency like a public records request, and the list goes on.
News of the Curry County case prompted a state Senate hearing on the issue, during which residents asked lawmakers for tougher rules. Environment and Natural Resources Committee Chair Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, promised residents the issue would come up again in the fall.
— Tony Schick