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Advocates Push For Testing Crops For Blue-Green Algae Contamination

The issue of what to do about toxic algae blooms is before the state environmental regulators.

Thursday the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission heard about some crops that may have been contaminated with toxic algae from Wapato Lake in the Willamette Valley.  Becca Bartleson was there and has this report.

The Tualatin River Keepers were among those who testified before state regulators. They  became involved with issue of toxic  algae blooms when the Oregon Department of Health and Human Services issued a public health advisory for the lower Tualatin.

But that's just the beginning of the story.

Some of that river water comes from Wapato Lake — which may have had a serious blue-green algae outbreak. And some of that water irrigated crops like beets, cauliflower and raspberries.

River Keeper Brian Wegener is spearheading a campaign to get the Department of Environomental Quality to test those crops for toxins.

Brian Wegener: "We have asked the DEQ to fund and perform this test because of the health risk. The microcystin can be carried by crops to humans who consume them. Agricultural workers are at risk when they breath the spray."

Steve Duyck owns the farm the samples were taken from. He was exposed to the water when he stuck his arm into one of his irrigation ditches last spring. He says he's had a burning rash since then.

Steve Duyck: "I have scars here. This hand swelled up for three weeks. It moved continuously. I went to the doctor, went on antibiotics, it did nothing. And this has been going, it's still to this day."

Duyck says his farmer workers also complained about the water, which he described as foul smelling and putrid neon green.  He says his crops stopped growing when he used it to irrigate.

Dr. Allen Milligan is a plant pathologist with Oregon State University. He says recent research has proven plants do absorb the toxins from the algae.

Allen Milligan: "Twelve different crops that have been studied take up toxins, the toxins get into the tissue, they accumulate in the tissue and they cause damage to the plants at the same time."

He says once the toxins get into the plants, they shouldn't be eaten.

Allen Milligan: "The toxins accumulate in plants to levels that if you ate even a small amount, a few ounces of some of these crops you would exceed the world health organizations daily limit."

The State of Oregon and the Federal Government have no standards on this. That's because it's relatively unheard of. Toxic algae blooms are a very recent problem.

Farmer Steve Duyck has been wanting to test samples from his farm that were collected in August. But he can't afford the eight thousand dollar price tag. 

Jean Edwards is a fisheries biologist working with Duyck on the issue. She says she's tried everyone

Jean Edwards: "It goes on and on and on. I used both state, federal and local jurisdictions and really got no response. I was always told that I might try another agency and see if they could help. There was a general shying away of any kind of responsibility or obligation in my opinion."

Dick Pedersen directs the DEQ. He attended the hearing and said he hopes to be able to address the problem at some point. But he would not say if his department would test the samples.

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