Can the “Pitchfork Rebellion” Change the Rules on Pesticides?

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Feb. 27 2012 10:59 AM

Rise of the Pitchforkers

Can a group of protesters waving farm implements bring about new rules for pesticide use?

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Timber lobbyist Terry Witt said local companies have used Atrazine and 2,4-D as directed by federal guidelines. But until now, they have dismissed Owen as an irksome eccentric—he happens to be the founder of an unusual religious sect that incorporates vegetarianism, yoga, meditation, and martial arts into the spiritual teachings of the ancient Essenes—and other Triangle Lake critics as extremists. Several years ago, someone torched a helicopter and poured sugar into the gas tanks of heavy equipment, but today’s Rebellion relies on letter-writing campaigns, newspaper op-eds, and major ad campaigns. One well-off couple has spent tens of thousands of dollars on private environmental testing. Most participants in the movement say they don’t condone eco-terrorism but acknowledge that tempers get hot at times, and that it takes effort to tamp down talk of shooting helicopters.

Witt said the industry would like to know whether the herbicides do cause harm and that it's ready to make changes based on sound science. It’s been hard for the industry to separate today’s issues, however, with the area’s troubling history with spraying—one that’s pushed many of its residents near paranoia. In the 1970s, spraying of another pesticide called 2,4,5-T led to dioxin contamination of water supplies, deer and elk tissue, and was linked to human health problems. That herbicide—which, by the way, was a key ingredient in Agent Orange—has since been banned, but it left its mark on the minds of those living on the Coastal Range.

Some say the local concerns are warranted. The prior contamination of water by 2,4,5-T was at first concealed by the EPA. And during the last safety review of Atrazine in 2003, the agency held more than 50 closed-door meetings with Syngenta, the company that manufactures the substance, indicating behind-the-scenes pressure from industry while scientists analyzed available research. While the American research community remains divided on the question of whether it causes cancer, data suggesting that Atrazine can affect pregnancy and childhood health through hormone disruption are now accepted by the EPA. It has meanwhile been banned in the European Union and even in Switzerland, where Syngenta is based.

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It’s amid this climate that the EPA has landed in Triangle Lake as a test case in the field. The agency first responded to a petition filed by the Pitchfork Rebellion in February 2010 pointing to community health problems and requesting drift and buffer protection zones around homes and schools. By the time Barr’s test results were made public, the EPA had already begun an inquiry, coinciding with the broader safety review of Atrazine that was under way in Washington.

Oregon and federal officials have said they do not know where the health study will lead, but while they anticipate sampling to continue through the summer of 2012, the state could react swiftly if a first round of government testing shows similar levels of pesticide exposure to the Barr tests. Oregon has the latitude to create pesticide buffer zones around sensitive areas like schools, homes, and farms and could follow the lead of some agricultural counties in California that have done the same. Pitchforkers are pushing for the idea and have rejected offers from law firms to finance a class-action lawsuit. For now, all they want are new regulations.

Lee van der Voo spent 2013 covering seafood as an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow. Follow her on Twitter.

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