The Bureau of Land Management has opened an internal investigation after the federal agency allowed an Oregon-based contractor to spray pesticides on public land without a valid license.
The spraying in early October prompted the Oregon Department of Agriculture to secure a restraining order to stop Applebee Aviation from operating while its license was suspended. ODA also fined Applebee Aviation $40,000.
The company's license was suspended in late September after an investigation into the workplace exposure of Darryl Ivy. Ivy spent 17 days as a truck driver and pesticide handler for Applebee Aviation before providing hundreds of worksite photos and videos to the media and alleging the company's pesticide operations endanger people and the environment.
All that has thrust Applebee Aviation into the center of a long-standing controversy over aerial pesticide spraying on recently-logged forests to kill vegetation that competes with newly-planted trees.
The practice has prompted complaints from rural residents who claim spraying has sickened them and their animals — complaints that have drawn the attention of Oregon lawmakers.
Applebee Aviation did not respond to a call or email seeking comment. At the time of the restraining order, owner Michael Applebee said he and his company "have been treated unfairly." The company's website states everyone at the company feels safety "is an attitude and is an absolute must" and that its practices allow for pesticide applications with "as little negative impact to the environment as possible."
Aerial herbicide spraying has not been used on Northwest Forest Service land since the 1980s1 but continues to be used by a separate federal agency, the Bureau of Land Management, as well as on state and private forests. The case of Applebee Aviation, a relatively small operation, shows how companies with a history of violations can continue to win government contracts, despite safeguards intended to prevent "bad actors" from working on public land.
BLM investigators now want to know how the company was able to spray pesticides on BLM land without a valid license, spokesman Michael Campbell said.
"We're looking at soup to nuts, the entire relationship with Applebee Aviation," Campbell said. BLM has awarded contracts totaling more than $195,000 to Applebee Aviation over the past six years.2
Applebee Aviation had previously won a contract to spray timber land overseen by BLM. After being told it could no longer carry out spraying jobs, Applebee Aviation did so anyway, according to court documents. In those documents, Applebee Aviation officials cited the pressure to follow through on lucrative contracts that would impact the company's bottom line.3
Since 2010, state and federal agencies awarded Applebee Aviation more than $1 million in contracts to apply fertilizer and pesticides on public land in Oregon and Washington.4 During that same span, Applebee Aviation tallied more complaints, violations and vehicle crashes than any other aerial pesticide operator in Oregon, according to state and federal records.5
Complaints are not rare for companies in the business of spraying chemicals on Oregon forestland, which is both highly visible and controversial. Many licensed operators have at least one complaint against them, according to Oregon Department of Agriculture data.
Applebee Aviation has 15, more than any other aerial pesticide operator in the state.
Applebee also has been cited for violations in four different cases in Oregon and one in Washington since 2010. In those cases, Applebee Aviation staff failed to review pesticide labels before applying them, allowed chemicals to drift onto a bicyclist and sprayed a weed killer toxic to fish over a creek where salmon and steelhead spawn. Two other cases are pending.6
Also during the past six years, Applebee Aviation has been involved in three crashes, according to FAA data. One was fatal.7
Meanwhile, Applebee Aviation has won nearly $1 million in bids for aerial herbicide spraying from the Washington Department of Natural Resources over the past six years.8 In 2015, the company won two contracts from the Oregon Department of Forestry, totaling near $50,000.9
Kevin Vanderlei, a former Applebee Aviation truck driver and pesticide handler, claims he was exposed to pesticides during jobs on DNR land. He recalls refilling a helicopter with broken nozzles, which caused pesticides to drip on him.
“I’m not talking about an occasional drip,” he said. “I’m talking about being doused in chemical every time I had to fill the helicopter.”
Washington and Oregon officials both said their states have safeguards to ensure that aerial sprayers can’t get government contracts while their licenses are suspended.
DNR spokeswoman Carrie McCausland said the state’s process for vetting companies requires any bidder to provide documentation of a valid licenses, adequate staff and equipment, which the state then verifies.
”If the Washington State Department of Agriculture, or any other certification or license regulator, acts to suspend a company’s required license or certification, then we would not award the contract to that company,” McCausland said.
Liz Dent, Oregon State Forests Division Chief for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said the agency has terminated its relationship with Applebee Aviation.
“Clearly, through their recent actions and restraining order, Applebee has proven they can’t be trusted to comply with best practices and contract specifications,” Dent said. “When the bid process was happening with Applebee they met that criteria, and that’s no longer the case.”
Both of Applebee Aviation’s recent contracts with ODF began after former employee Ivy had alleged various wrongdoings, meaning the company was being investigated by ODF’s partner agencies at the time.
“Following the bidding laws, and generally speaking, someone under investigation is assumed innocent until proven guilty,” Dent said.
Clarification: April 4, 2017. A previous version of this article stated that aerial herbicide spraying was banned on Forest Service lands. The practice was banned temporarily in the 1980s after legal challenges but the agency later regained a more limited use through a mediated agreement. Despite having no formal ban in place, the Forest Service says it has not used aerial application of herbicides to treat invasive plants in the Pacific Northwest since the 1980s.
1. Ban Ordered on Aerial Herbicide Spraying, 1984: http://bit.ly/1KDCwV4
2. List of Applebee Aviation contracts with BLM: http://1.usa.gov/1P3k3HJ
3. According to the declaration of Dale Mitchell, Oregon Department of Agriculture Pesticide Program Manager, Michael Applebee stated the BLM contract was worth a total of $3 million and that failing to fulfill the contract would cause Applebee substantial harm. Applebee also asked for an exception to the suspension. http://bit.ly/1WhieHH
5. Oregon Department of Agriculture complaints regarding aerial spraying: http://bit.ly/1Rdilmi. Due to a quirk in Oregon Department of Agriculture recordkeeping, not all complaints regarding Applebee Aviation are listed on the spreadsheet. The files themselves can be found here: http://bit.ly/1LWHFJC. There are 15 complaints and one violation not driven by a complaint.
6. ODA case files on Applebee Aviation can be found here: http://bit.ly/1LWHFJC. Case numbers 160034 and 160096 are both pending.
7. List of FAA incidents involving Applebee Aviation, includes four total, three after 2010: http://1.usa.gov/1iewi7l
8. List of DNR silviculture contract for aerial herbicide applications: http://1.usa.gov/1OW6GKW
9. PDF copies of ODF contracts for Applebee Aviation: http://bit.ly/1O5XbJ1