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Drift Happens

Drift Happens

By Joel Preston Smith

Art Paz doesn’t look like a tree-hugging rabble-rouser. Almost dapper in his button-downs —He looks as if he were going to chain himself to anything, it would be the Oxford English Dictionary.

Yet shortly after dawn April 15, the 70-year-old Paz parked his Toyota 4Runner crossways over a gravel road in Springfield, with the intention of barricading Weyerhaeuser pesticide tankers from entering a 40-acre clear cut bordering his Tilth-certified organic blueberry farm. Simultaneously, his neighbor’s Chevy truck “stalled” in the road 500 yards to the southeast, thereby preventing an end-run by tankers. 

Two days earlier, officials from the timber giant called Paz to note that the company would spray with Oust, Velpar and Transline pesticides to eradicate invasive growth on the clearcut. Paz immediately fired off a series of emails to Weyerhaeuser officials, noting that drift from the spray operation would potentially contaminate his farm, threatening his livelihood. 

Consequently, when two Weyerhaeuser trucks pulled onto Cedar Flat Road the morning of the 15th, Paz believed the pesticide tankers were likely not far behind. Instead, Weyerhaeuser sent Debbie Dalrymple, an area timber manager to negotiate. Paz told Dalrymple he wasn’t budging, that any spray on the border of his farm “would constitute an illegal taking” of his property in the form of chemical trespass. Paz, who in addition to being an organic farmer is a licensed architect, says he told Dalrymple the spray would also threaten his architecture clients, and his 57-acre forest, certified as “sustainable” by the Forest Stewardship Council. 


He says he noted that in the 42 years he has owned the property, which forms one of the headwaters of the McKenzie River Watershed, he has never applied any form of pesticide, “or petrochemicals of any kind.” To do so, he argues, would subject his architecture clients to a “poisoned environment,” risk the health of those who consume the food he produces, and potentially cost him his certification as an organic farmer--and thus a portion of his livelihood. 

After four decades of watching morning fog drift 1100 feet upslope from the valley floor, he believes any application of pesticides would inevitably cross his farm, forest and home, if not at the time of application, then potentially days later, in vapor evaporation from the target site. 

Paz says he also told Dalrymple that the state of Oregon had violated its legal requirement to inform him 14 days in advance of the spraying; like many Oregon residents whose property hugs state or private forests, and who are concerned about pesticide drift, Paz paid $25 to the state Department of Forestry for the right to be warned about impending pesticide sprays, after Weyerhaeuser stripped the land last June.

“I told her I had a right to protect my business, and a constitutional right to defend my family. I told her, ‘I will fight you in every conceivable way. If there’s any contamination, I’m coming after you.’”

Invisible invasion

About 38 miles to the northwest, farmers Dan and Maya Gee of Triangle Lake, Ore. see themselves as similarly threatened by pesticide drift, but don’t have the option of a blockade. The Gee’s say their nearest neighbor operates a Christmas tree farm in excess of 100 acres, and recently submitted a forest-thinning plan to the Oregon Department of Forestry that included Crossbow and Tordon (to suppress competing species). 

Of the two herbicides, Tordon—also known under the generic name of picloram—is considered the more dangerous, primarily because it is a broad-spectrum, long-lived killer; Tordon does not degrade in sunlight, has a half life of 100-200 days in loam soils, is “persistent and mobile and has a high potential to reach groundwater,” and is “likely to jeopardize endangered plant species when used on pastures/rangeland and forests,” according to both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

The Gee’s have planted 300 different varieties of fruit, apples, pears, plums, cherries and filberts on their 54-acre farm. They say they will apply for organic certification with Tilth this summer—but their land and business, Earth Joy Gardens, lies down-slope of the Tordon target area. The Oregon Department of Forestry notified the Gee’s that their neighbor planned to spray the area this spring, and would use Tordon. However, according to Maya, the agency failed to catch that the compound can only be dispersed by licensed applicators, which their neighbor was not.
Maya says if not for paying for advance notification, then cross-checking the notification with lists of controlled herbicides, with the help of local activist Jan Wroncy, and then cross-referencing those lists with state forestry regulations, she wouldn’t have caught the fact that state foresters had approved a prohibited spraying operation. 

“It cost us $25 to get them to do their jobs, but what bothers me more, is that something can get used in its [Tordon’s] place. The fact is, no matter what they use, it can still drift down on us. Pesticides don’t know the property lines.” 

Paz and the Gee’s have hired an attorney, and both have begun a series of legal moves to restrict pesticide applications on neighboring properties. They’ve also contracted with Stu Turner, a certified agronomist from Tri-Cities, Wash., to draw what in essence is a chemical profile of each farm, before (they say) their land is contaminated. 

“We live in what is essentially a bowl,” says Maya, pointing to the crown of hills that ring the property. Gee’s farm is at and elevation of 754 feet, under slopes on neighboring tree farms ascending to as much as 1120 feet. An outer ring of private timber lies at just over 1800 feet. 

“Whatever they put up there … is going to flow down here.”
Turner has tested the Gee farm, and is scheduled to test Paz’s blueberry field and forest. Neither party will describe what Turner has found, but both say that the results will be presented in court, in a lawsuit, if subsequent tests detect chemical drifters. 

Drift happens. How much, under what conditions, whether it can be reasonably controlled, and whether it causes harm—and whether the “harm” outweighs the “benefits,” and whether any application whatsoever is beneficial, in whose opinion--is disputable.

A Santa Cruz County, Calif. jury awarded $1 million in damages to organic farmer Larry Jacobs Sept. 29, 2008 after a crop duster, Western Farm Service, Inc., allowed chlorpyrifos, diazinon and dimethoate pesticides to migrate (in volatilized form) in 2006 and 2007 from a neighboring farm onto Jacob’s rosemary, dill and sage fields. The court ruled that pesticide drift constituted a chemical trespass, which resulted in the loss of harvestable crops.
Last year, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Boise, Idaho found the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and pesticide manufacturer E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co. guilty of negligence after the BLM used aerial sprayers to control weeds in 17,000 wildfire-scorched acres in the southeast corner of the state. The agency’s pesticide of choice, Oust, drifted out of the spray zones near the cities of American Falls and Paul, and onto as many (allegedly) as 118 farms. The court awarded four plaintiffs in excess of $17.5 million on August 24, 2according to the Idaho Statesman. 

Drift happens, according to Kevin Weeks, information officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry. “We’re very concerned about spray drift, especially for aerial spray, because of public concerns.” 

Weeks notes that “industrial ownership” governs about 20 percent of the state’s forests—about six million acres. “That fact, means that many commercial forests are going to have many neighboring [private] properties.”

Oregon used 19.7 million pounds of active pesticide ingredients in the state in 2008. The reporting requirement ended in 2008, after the Oregon State Legislature cut funding for it.

And sometimes those private properties, including organic farms, lie downwind of pesticide applications. Weeks says that in 2008, timber operators in Oregon applied to use a combined total of 820,541 pounds of pesticides. How much of it was actually applied is unknown. Weeks says the department only tracks permits, not actual use, and not the method of application.
 According to Oregon Department of Agriculture figures, commercial applicators in Oregon used 19.7 million pounds of active pesticide ingredients in the state in 2008. The reporting requirement ended in 2008, after the Oregon State Legislature cut funding for it. Pesticide applicators do not have to track amounts they use in Oregon from July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2011.
 Turner, who describes himself as “a strong advocate for the use of pesticides,” says aerial applications are particularly insidious, and difficult to manage. Ironically, he notes, about 60 percent of his workload is testifying on behalf of pesticide applicators, chemical companies and pesticide dealers, who frequently dismiss drift as insignificant. 

“They cite all these studies,” Turner explains, “pointing out how little drift occurs. But what they don’t point out is that most of the studies were done in Iowa and Texas, in stable wind conditions, with a helicopter hovering in place 10 feet over a corn crop—not flying angular ridges in the Coast Range, overtop Douglas firs, 200 feet above the land surface in an updraft. The conditions under which these pesticides are being applied don’t always fit the studies.”

The Oregon Forest Practices Act requires that pilots maintain a 60-foot buffer around certain fish-bearing streams, lakes and waterways for pesticide applications, but doesn’t set another crucial parameter—the maximum permissible height for dispersing pesticides. The EPA’s “Risk Assessment of Pesticide Drift” noted in 2005 that an aerial spray from a height of only 15 feet, in winds of 10 miles per hour, resulted in one percent of the original formulation being deposited as far as 984 feet from the target site. 

“The EPA’s [required] label for [some] pesticides recommends that they be applied no greater than 10 feet over the target area,” Turner laughs, “but that’s a recommendation, not a restriction. What if you could buy dynamite and the label said, ‘It’s good to have 30 feet of fuse, but if you don’t have 30 feet, use whatever you have’? It’s a system that’s destined to fail, by design.”
Henry Jennings, director of Maine’s State Board of Pesticide Control, says the Board tried to get a buffer for aerial pesticide applications on urban boundaries passed through the state legislature last year. The measure failed. 

 “We saw it as a matter of ethics,” Jennings sighs. “The Board took a stand, and said, ‘Is it ethical to spray within an occupied area?’ We didn’t think so, but the legislature saw it differently. We can’t get a meaningful buffer into law, so we rely on a standard of harm. If an applicator harms someone, we go after them. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve given up.”

Greg Miller, Weyerhaeuser’s public affairs manager, says, “After considering the concerns of Mr. Paz, we made substantive changes to our proposed use of forest chemicals.” Miller says that those changes involve using different pesticides than originally proposed. The company will also make an effort to communicate with Paz’s neighbors, “so that they can better understand our requirement to successfully reforest our forestland.” 

Miller observes, “The Oregon Forest Practices Act law requires that we replant our forestland, and that the new forest be re-established and free-to-grow within six years. If we do not successfully reforest the parcel within that timeframe, then we are subject to a $5,000 fine.” He notes that the company is also “looking at other possibilities to address [sic] neighbor’s concerns, and our legal and land stewardship requirements.”

 Kristy Korb, Oregon Tilth’s certification director, says that if pesticides are eventually detected on Paz’s farm, it does not mean the operator will be automatically facing proposed suspension or revocation of their operation. “Revocation rarely happens,” she notes, “and that’s usually the result of the farmer intentionally violating the organic standards. In the case where a drift occurs it is more of an inadvertent trespass, and the most common result is the operator wouldn’t be able to sell, label or represent the affected crop as organic.” 

She points out, however, that if the neighboring land use changed from what was submitted in their organic system plan, that change would require the certified operation to notify their certifier of the change for the certifier to approve the plan as changed. An organic system plan has to have a detailed map of their operation, including neighboring operations and identified buffers. A certifier approves the defined buffers by the location of the operation and the neighboring land uses.

 Lisa Arkin, executive director of the Oregon Toxics Alliance, based in Eugene,  says her organization has been collecting data on pesticide exposures. The alliance combats what she terms “government weaknesses in regulating pesticides,” and provides leadership to the Oregon Pesticide Action Workgroup (which comprises about 45 citizens’ groups and individuals, who oppose the large-scale application of pesticides).


For now, the Gee’s have strung a winding, 1000-foot long, 8-foot tall fence, constructed from black shade cloth, along the east face of their farm, at Turner’s recommendation. She says Turner told them it had proven effective in stopping pesticide drift onto vineyards, and it was better than nothing. 

Maya says it cost about $2000. It’s ugly, but she says it’s better than the invisible stuff that she believes is out there, in neighboring forests, creeping over the landscape. She worries a great deal about boundaries, and how to protect them. A Serbian refugee from war in the Balkans, Maya immigrated to the U.S. with her parents in 1992. She says she and Dan moved to Oregon from Chicago, Ill. in 2006, because they wanted out of the noise, the pollution, the toxic confines of a big city. “We were looking for a pure way to farm.” 

“We’re in limbo,” she muses. “We’re waiting. Stu (Turner) says to keep an eye on the landscape. We’re looking every day for curling leaves, brown spots on plants. If we see it, we’ll know we’ve been drifted.”

Joel Preston Smith is a photo journalist and investigative reporter based in Portland.


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