T"SOME CIRCUMSTANTIAL evidence is very strong, as when you find a Trout in the milk"-- Henry David Thoreau (1850).
During the 1970s a mysterious set of tragedies began to plague the picturesque Alsea Valley on the central Oregon coast. A surprising number of women in this sparsely populated logging and farming region had miscarriages or children with birth defects, while other people sickened.
By 1975, a few Alsea residents concluded that their problems were being caused by the spraying of herbicides such as 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D on adjoining U.S. Forest Service land. 2,4,5-T contains a form of the incredibly lethal man- made poison Dioxin, and the military combination of the two--Agent Orange--had already been linked with miscarriages, birth defects, cancer and emotional distress where it had been sprayed in Vietnam. Armed with this information, a committee of Alsea residents asked the Forest Service to stop spraying within a mile of human habitations, and offered alternative ways of controlling the brush that is the primary target of herbicides in the Siuslaw National Forest.
The Forest Service rejected the request outright in the spring of 1976, prompting area residents to form Citizens Against Toxic Sprays (CATS) and sue for an injunction against further spraying on the grounds that the program's environmental impact statement did not discuss possible harm from herbicide use. CATS' federal court victory (using volunteer legal aid against the Forest Service and Dow Chemical's best attorneys) made national news in the spring of 1977, but this was really only round one of the fight. Round two opened with the Forest Service winning somewhat reluctant court approval for a new environmental impact statement, which contained more information but arrived at the same conclusion, that aerial spraying of herbicides posed no threat to human health whatsoever.
"What really surprised us was to learn that there is no law you can invoke to stop your government--or anyone else--from spraying poison all over you," said Susan Parker, chairman of the Lincoln County (Oregon) Planning Commission, who suffered respiratory problems when spraying took place. "All you can say is they didn't prepare an adequate statement telling what the poison would do!"
Industry lobbyists meanwhile persuaded Congress to amend the law so that "circumstantial" anecdotal evidence of herbicide harm--such as the people in the Alsea had been amassing--could not be used as grounds for removal of a herbicide from the market. It looked like clear spraying for the Forest Service, but then the trout appeared in the milk, as it were. The Dioxin Monitoring Program of the Environmental Protection Agency began to turn up evidence of Dioxin contamination in several areas of the country, including one sample showing a small amount of Dioxin in the milk of a nursing mother near the Siuslaw National Forest. Although it at first tried to prevent the information's release (it took a Freedom of Information Act request from Oregon Congressman Jim Weaver to get the mother's milk data released), the EPA lumbered into action in early 1978, when it issued a landmark suspension of 2,4,5-T in forestry use (but not other uses, such as rice growing), pending further study. Those studies have never been completed, and their disposition is one of the major issues on the agendas of new EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, the timber industry (from which Ruckelshaus comes), herbicide industry, farmers and people who live in the areas sprayed.
A Bitter Fog: Herbicides and Human Rights, by Carol Van Strum, combines the pivotal action on the Alsea with supporting sketches from Arizona to Alberta. If the recent tragedy of dioxin-laced road oil in Times Beach, Missouri, is the story of the poor, hapless victim, then the Alsea is the story of the victim who struggled, kicked and bit. At its best, A Bitter Fog is an inspiring tale of effective citizen activism rooted in deep personal sorrow.
"The baby--it was a girl. She was perfect from her toes to her eyebrows," said Alsea resident Larry Archer of his second daughter. "I mean her face was perfect too --kind of like Kahleen's almost. But that was the end of it. It ended at the eyebrows. That's all there was--just this kind of bowl, with a kind of film of tissue over it . . . She lived for an hour." The timber industry argues that there is no way to prove positively that herbicide spraying caused deformities like this, while anti-herbicide advocates maintain that, using the same level of proof, there is no way of positively proving that herbicides benefit timber production either.
A co-founder of CATS, as well as a journalist, poet and mother of children who were sprayed by a tank truck while they played in a stream near their home, Carol Van Strum writes with strong feeling on the herbicide issue, and a sharp eye for the dirty detail, from the case of a Michigan Audubon Chapter fronting for Dow to possible falsification of tests used to obtain market approval for Monsanto's widely used herbicide, Roundup. Although not exactly a graceful book, A Bitter Fog is a compelling one that ultimately makes its case by letting people talk.
"Sometimes I think of moving again, but it's such a hard thing," said Debbie Marano, a Five Rivers, Oregon, housewife who had a miscarriage in 1975. "Anywhere there are farms and forests--anywhere John could find work--they are going to be spraying. When I get discouraged and talk about moving again, he says, 'Where can you go--the Sahara?' But Christmas trees! Why spray Christmas trees with poisons? I don't understand."