Residents in a coastal Southern Oregon community have been trying since October to find out whether they were exposed to herbicides that a timber company sprayed on a nearby clearcut.
After months of waiting, new information has finally come out: state inspectors say they detected trace amounts of two herbicides on the leaves of apple trees in the neighborhood.
On Oct. 16, a helicopter pilot sprayed herbicide on 176 acres of clearcut forest that belongs to Crook Timberlands.
John Burns lives less than a mile away in a community called Cedar Valley. He said he heard the helicopter, smelled a strange smell twice, and started feeling sick that evening.
“Symptoms like a sinus infection, or something going on like that,” he said.
Burns and his wife and at least nine other families in the neighborhood filed complaints with the state of Oregon.
A week after the spraying investigators gathered plant samples from the community to look for evidence that herbicide had spilled or drifted far from its intended target.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture tested the samples for five chemicals. The agency got results back in November.
OPB received those test results after filing a public records request. The tests showed trace amounts of two herbicides, triclopyr and 2,4-D, on John Burns’s apple trees. Burns said he had just learned the results. He said he keeps his garden pesticide free and did not spray either of the herbicides on his property.
The tests detected 2-4-D on a neighbor’s trees, too.
Burns said he’s frustrated that it took so long for the community to get information about what might have been sprayed.
“The laws do not protect the citizens. They do not protect our environment. They do not protect our water,” Burns said.
Rick Barnes is a consultant who manages forests that belong to Crook Timberlands.
He declined to comment on the trace amounts of herbicides found on area residents’ property.
But he did say that the helicopter pilot had sprayed a mix of chemicals including 2,4,D and Triclopyr.
Barnes said the herbicides targeted one species in particular: the tanoak tree. Timber companies commonly spray after clearcut logging to prevent brush and trees from outcompeting Douglas firs or other conifer trees that are planted like crops to eventually be logged.
Barnes said he has inspected the spray sites in Cedar Valley himself and is certain no herbicide drifted off the clearcut.
“Within the units we had sprayed, the species were dead. Right across a narrow forest road, the same species was healthy. So it was obvious we had very good control when we sprayed our units,” he said.
It is unclear if the Oregon Department of Agriculture will conclude the chemicals it detected are evidence that herbicide from the helicopter spilled or drifted onto the neighboring community.
In the last three years the ODA has only detected herbicides that potentially drifted off target from timberlands in two previous cases.
Neither of those cases led to a fine or finding that the herbicide applicator had violated the law.