GRANTS PASS, Ore. — A state investigation has determined that a helicopter hired to spray herbicide on some commercial timberlands in southwestern Oregon “more than likely” allowed some to fall over people’s homes as it flew by.
But the results released Tuesday by the Oregon Department of Agriculture came to no conclusions about whether the small amounts found on the ground can account for complaints from two dozen people who said the spray made them sick.
The investigation was launched after complaints last October from people in the Cedar Valley area north of Gold Beach.
Department Director Katy Coba said that the helicopter company, Pacific Air Research Inc., of White City, could face state and federal civil penalties as the investigation moves into the enforcement phase.
The state found violations including:
Allowing pesticides to fall on properties other than the intended spray site.
Applying a heavier dose than allowed by label instructions on one of the commercial timberland sites.
Providing multiple false records that misled the department about what products were used.
The company has not returned calls seeking comment.
Cedar Valley resident John Burns, assistant chief of the local volunteer fire department, said he was frustrated by the time the investigation took, particularly to come up with the various pesticides that fell on their homes. He added that he is still coughing five months after the incident.
“We had to dig every bit of information out of them to know what was going on, why this happened to us, and what the product was we were poisoned with,” Burns said. “What are they going to do to stop this from happening to us again?”
Coba acknowledged that the department could have done a better job of keeping residents informed, but added that the applicator, Pacific Air Research, did not cooperate, to the point of providing false records that misled investigators about what products were used.
Though investigators were initially told that the only herbicide used was glyphosate, commonly sold as RoundUp, samples of vegetation from the properties of two of the Cedar Valley residents showed barely detectible levels of 2,4-D and triclopyr, both common broadleaf weed killers, investigators found. Five other vegetation samples detected no herbicides.
It wasn’t until later in the investigation that records emerged showing the helicopter had indeed flown over the homes of the people complaining while going to a fourth spray site owned by a second landowner, said investigator Mike Odenthal.
That combined with records of what the helicopter carried, the chemicals found on the ground, and a lack of other potential sources of herbicides, led to the conclusion that the chemicals probably came from the helicopter.
“I think we’ve got enough to show more than likely that the product came from the aerial applicator,” he said.