Newport city councilors did a long arm’s length dance with an employee of Hancock Timber Company Monday night over whether there will be any herbicide spraying uphill from the town’s main source of drinking water – Big Creek Reservoir. There appears to be widespread agreement among the manufacturers of herbicides that spraying, aimed at giving young trees a head start against competing brush and weeds, should not be near any body of water that directly feeds local drinking water treatment plants. Yet Hancock employee Jerry Anderson re-iterated Hancock intends to use herbicides to treat the steep, clear-cut hillsides above Big Creek Reservoir. Anderson said they envision using on-the-ground workers spraying herbicides from back-pack tanks at least fifty feet from the edge of the reservoir.
Rather tense discussions ensued, including a string of citizens who weighed in on the debate, some reminding the council that there is plenty of documentation of children being born with birth or brain damage due to exposure to herbicides and pesticides while evolving in the womb. Also there have been documented outbreaks of cancer among residents living in or near forests that were sprayed with herbicides – some of those sprays drifting out of the woods and onto and into their homes.
Councilor Wendy Engler challenged Anderson with a question as to whether herbicide spraying to eradicate competing weeds and bush is better than manually clearing them. Anderson quickly replied “They’re the same.” But he quickly added “there isn’t enough labor available to do it manually.”
City Attorney Steve Rich reminded the council that a tentative agreement between Hancock and the city presumes that Hancock has the right to spray within the watershed, based on state law, which pre-empts city ordinances. At that point a reference was made to the fact that Oregon’s forestry practices statutes are among the weakest in the country, attributable to what is frequently referred to as the timber industry’s heavy political influence in the state capital.
Hancock’s Anderson said his company is willing to “work” with the city to move the operation forward. Councilor Engler replied that she was holding out for a no-spray option. Many residents filling up the council chambers said human health is nothing to gamble or toy with. They called on the council to fight to keep herbicide spraying away from Big Creek. City Public Works Director Tim Gross retorted that herbicide spraying is done throughout the Siletz River basin from which the city pipes a lot of water to Big Creek Reservoir. And that so far, water plant testing has shown no sign of pesticide contamination. But one woman in the audience took issue with that conclusion. She claimed that despite the finding, there is frequently found contamination at very low levels that can still be dangerous.
The council asked City Manager Spencer Nebel to negotiate with Hancock – perhaps put off any spraying for the rest of the year to give both sides time to further explore what’s at stake.