The cell phone videos are shaky, and clearly taken in secret. Deep within Oregon's expansive timber country, Darryl Ivy was temporarily working as part of a pesticide crew, spraying the ground with weed killers from a truck, in order to let the fir seedlings grow free of natural competition.
Overhead, the videos show, helicopters sweep in to help with the job — dumping chemicals on Ivy and his fellow workers in the process. "This is the shitty part of my job," he says of an approaching helicopter in one of the videos, which were obtained by the Oregonian. " All these hazardous warning labels, and I have no protective gear."
Ivy's undercover videos have helped catapult the issue of chemical spraying into the forefront of Oregon politics, not just for worker's rights issues—spraying workers with chemicals is clearly illegal according to state laws—but because many rural residents who live in lumber country are subjected to the same sprayings, with no legal protections. It's the latest case in a long list of people reporting health complications after being sprayed by pesticides.
The day after the videos were released last week, the Oregon House unanimously endorsed a bill that would declare a state of emergency regarding the use of pesticides, urging immediate comprehensive action from the state. That bill would also expand the limited restrictions on where harmful weed killing chemicals can be sprayed.
The reason for restrictions is simple: safety concerns. Velossa, one of the pesticides identified in Ivy's videos, can cause irreversible eye damage. Another, 2,4-D, can cause serious skin irritation, and inhaling its vapors can reportedly cause dizziness.
During his interview with the Oregonian, Ivy, who took the videos, is described as "coughing blood into a stained white towel he now carries everywhere," which he attributes to the exposure. He reportedly showed medical records to the paper, showing he has since been diagnosed with "acute chemical exposure" and "acute contact dermatitis."
At the time when Fusion spoke to him by phone, he had just left the doctor's office, more than a month after he leaving the job. "My health is starting to clear up, but my cough persists, and my nose won't stop running," he said. "I feel like I have asthma. I have coughing fits, and I don't need an oxygen tank or anything, but I know something's up. I'm an athlete. I work out all the time, and I take care of my body and I'm telling you: my body isn't where it used to be." Ivy was only on the job for a total of seventeen days, he said.
Apart from existing laws governing the spraying of workers, there are few other restrictions in place about how pesticides are sprayed in Oregon.
For instance, there are no buffer zones in place for spraying close to homes and schools, something which affects residents of rural areas, says Lisa Arkin, executive director of Beyond Toxics, an Oregon-based environmental and human health advocacy group.
"That sets us apart from our neighbors like Washington state, where they have 200-foot buffers around homes and schools, and where they protect all surface waters," she told Fusion. "In Oregon, there's a 60-foot buffer in place for a fish-bearing stream. You can have a small stream that may be providing drinking water for a rural community, but if there are no fish in it, it's not protected."
"The state of Oregon has probably the weakest regulations around buffers," she said.
The proposed legislation in the House recommends several state agencies conduct much-needed research on the issue. Arkin's organization is neutral on the proposal, due to its focus on setting up a hotline to report illegal spraying, rather than what she says is more preventative measures like notifying residents before their areas are sprayed in the first place.
Oregon is the United States' largest lumber producer, accounting for 18 percent of the nation's softwood
lumber production, according to the Oregon Forest Industries Council. An estimated 30 million acres of the state—about half its surface area—is used for timber, and about 35 percent of that land is in private hands.
Overall, the lumber industry brings about $14 billion to the state each year, while supporting over 50,000 jobs. That makes for a tough lumber lobby in Salem, the state capital, which has long fought efforts to establish more regulations on the industry. Prior to the current House bill, lobbyists helped stall a similar bill in the Senate.
According to the Oregonian, the industry has been getting away relatively easy from the regulations that are already in place:
An Applebee pilot doused a Hillsboro cyclist with an insecticide in 2010 but was not fined, state records show. The company was found in violation as well, but wasn't fined either.
Last year, state records show, another Applebee pilot allowed weed killers to drift 400 feet into a neighbor's front yard during a Seneca Jones spray operation in Douglas County. Several people complained of being sickened. The pilot and the company were each penalized $407.
The pilot could have gotten a bigger fine for driving 36 mph in a 25 mph zone.
But in one case, at least, the state came a bit harder. Emphasis ours:
Regulators reacted forcefully to Oregon's highest-profile spray case, a 2013 Curry County incident that produced 20 complaints of illnesses. In that case, an independent pilot repeatedly flew over homes as he moved between two clearcuts, misting people below.
The Agriculture Department suspended that pilot's spraying license for a year and fined him and his business $10,000 each. Nearly a year later, the sanctions are on hold as the pilot, Steve Owen, contests the matter.
Taken together, that case, the amount of local attention that Ivy's whistleblowing videos has generated, and the current bill in the House has some advocates—and lawmakers—hopeful that things could soon change.
Representative Ann Lininger, a Democrat, sees hope for the cause, which she has long been a champion for. “When you pick a fight with an opponent this tough, you’ve got to be pleased with small steps," she told local paper the Register Guard of the early success of the House bill. Reportedly, some industry groups have said they back it.
A meeting on the House bill took place on Thursday, but it has not been voted on yet. A future meeting has not yet been scheduled.
"To be honest with you, I thought I could deal with it. I'm a healthy guy, and no one else on crew was dying, " Ivy, the whistleblower, told Fusion about the few weeks he spent working as a pesticide sprayer.
"But now it's like: that was over a month ago," he said. "I'm still going to the doctor, I still can't breathe right."
"Just imagine, what was happened to [Ivy] is happening not just to lumber and agricultural workers — which we know is illegal — it's happening to rural residents every day here, and there's nothing stopping it from happening," said Arkin of Beyond Toxins. "If we don't act on this, people are going to keep getting sick."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.