The Oregon Department of Justice has ordered the state Department of Agriculture to turn over records that are part of an investigation into aerial herbicide spraying on timber lands near Gold Beach on Oct. 16, 2013.
In the weeks following the herbicide application, people from more than a dozen households complained to the Department of Agriculture of a strange smell and a helicopter flying over a community called Cedar Valley. Ten families in the Cedar Valley area reported symptoms of illness around that time, including skin rashes, nausea, and headaches.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture is investigating whether the timber companies involved, and a pilot and herbicide applicator with the company Pacific Air Research, may have violated pesticide application regulations. ODA says it is investigating 5 herbicide active ingredients: 2,4-D, triclopyr, glyphosate, imazapyr, metsulfuron methyl, and triclopyr; however, it has not released information about the specific products it believes were used or their potential toxicity.
The advocacy group Beyond Toxics requested records related to the state's investigation in January. The Oregon Department of Agriculture denied the request, claiming federal law prohibited the agency from releasing records related to its ongoing investigation, due to the involvement of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In a letter, the Department of Justice said the agency's claim of a federal ban on releasing the records was misplaced. "Neither of the federal authorities on which ODA rely, however, prohibits the state from disclosing the public records in this case," wrote Deputy Attorney General Frederick Boss.
Boss said that ODA may be able to redact some personal and confidential information from its investigation records before making them public. In response to the decision, Beyond Toxics director Lisa Arkin released a statement. “State agencies must comply with Oregon’s laws determining the public’s right to access public documents, especially in a case where human health is at stake,” she said.
Oregon Public Broadcasting has also submitted a request for public records related to the investigation. The Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Oregon Department of Forestry provided partial records to OPB, but refused to provide a number of key documents. ODA spokesman Bruce Pokarney declined to answer questions related to the spray investigation that OPB submitted in writing , and said the agency will not give interviews until its investigation is complete.
"Quite frankly, any public discussion of these specific questions could allow parties under investigation to change their story prior to the completion of our investigation or could damage the integrity of evidence that needs to remain secure. This is too great a risk for us to take at this time," Pokarny wrote.