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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The Pitchfork Rebellion alleges a connection between pesticides and illness in coastal Oregon

Photo by Martin Fischer.

It was a typical morning when the helicopter flew by. Neila Owen was milking the goats and tending to her garden in the Coastal Range of Oregon when it passed. She watched the herbicide that trailed it form a cloud on a hill above her home, then drift slowly across the valley. Within hours, a heavy feeling gripped her muscles, then settled into her joints. Vomiting followed arthritic aches. Her menstrual cycle arrived five days early, she says, with pelvic pain that felt like bones splitting. Later, the farm’s fruit trees stood dead in the yard.

Owen would report the incident to state officials, without result. The call was not her first. It came two years after she and some 70 of her neighbors took to the streets waving pitchforks to rally against the local timber industry's practice of swiping the trees from the hilltops, which had led to mudslides that wiped out the road to the nearest town. Since their first days of protest with farm implements, the so-called Pitchfork Rebellion, angry over the clear-cuts and sliding earth, has become increasingly concerned with the routine spraying of herbicides on the hills around their homes, a practice that typically follows timber harvests. Since then, their community has become an object of study.

A public health investigation near Triangle Lake, Ore., now involves three federal agencies and the state. It is the first to probe how Americans like Owen, who live in the low-lying areas between patchworks of timberland, fare amid frequent sprays of herbicides. If the study finds evidence that these chemicals are finding their way into people’s bodies there, it could lead to new rules on spraying at the state level and feed into a national inquiry on the matter.

Until now, state officials said they had no more to provoke inquiry in Triangle Lake than reports of flulike symptoms. Photos of rashes and burns lived in private collections. Older women, stricken with rollercoaster menstrual cycles and crushing fatigue, blamed hormones. Right now there's no way to know for sure what to make of these symptoms, but the spraying of herbicides seems like a possible culprit—and one that should be investigated.

There are some more specific signs of a problem. Since those early days of pitchfork waving, several dozen people, including Pitchforkers and schoolchildren, were found to be urinating traces of 2,4-D and Atrazine—two controversial compounds that some have linked to cancer and hormonal disruption. Pitchfork organizer Day Owen, husband to Neila and the face of the Pitchfork Rebellion, recruited Dana Barr of Emory University to conduct the study, and she found signs of exposure in all 44 people she tested. That’s surprising, even in rural areas where residents are frequently exposed to pesticides, because exposure so rarely affects everyone—though the health effects of that exposure are still in question.

Now, the EPA, the CDC, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the state are investigating. Federal experts have criticized Oregon’s Pesticide Analytical Response Center for an erratic handling of potential poisonings in the past, and the Oregon Health Authority is now testing people, plants, and water in the area. State and federal agencies are splitting the cost of a likely $200,000 first-phase tab and targeting the two herbicides that might be dangerous.

The inquiry comes as the EPA takes a second look at Atrazine. Years ago it was shown to be noncarcinogenic, but now there's evidence that it's polluting our water supplies and wreaks havoc on hormones. (Some have taken issue with the noncarcinogenicity findings as well.) The review will include data from local efforts to probe the effects of Atrazine exposure in Arkansas and California, as well as the data now being collected in Oregon. Depending on what they find, we may see new restrictions on spraying crops and timber, particularly above and next to people’s homes. The EPA plans a similar safety review of 2,4-D in 2013.

The first health problems that were said to be caused by this recent spraying of herbicides did little but provoke conflict and derision in Oregon. Pitchforkers say they could find no one in state government with an interest in exploring the issue. After protests escalated, Owen was roughed up and taken to the Lane County jail following a rally on May 30, 2008, arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and interfering with a police officer. There, a stiff-looking man read to him from his own credit card statements, making clear Owen was being watched. An ensuing court case found Owen had been under surveillance by Homeland Security for advocating for “revolution” during rallies. The surveillance and bust-up of the event, along with Owen’s arrest, made such a public display—another organizer was repeatedly TASERed—that the story landed on MTV. The charges against Owen were dropped.

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.

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.