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Oregon Regulators Allowed Unlicensed Pesticide Spray On State Forest

Officials with the Oregon Department of Forestry knew Applebee Aviation had lost its pesticide license before they let the company spray weed killer over 800 acres of state and private land.

This failure to stop a pesticide sprayer after suspending its license is the latest example of Oregon’s inability to prevent problematic forest pesticide applications.

The state agencies that regulate the practice have been under increased scrutiny from media, environmentalists and lawmakers over the past two years after a string of complaints about exposure from aerial pesticide spraying.

State foresters and private timber companies use helicopters to spray pesticides on recently logged land to kill vegetation that would compete with newly planted trees. Many environmentalists oppose the practice -- they tried and failed to push comprehensive reforms through the Oregon legislation last year. But one sprayer in particular has drawn the ire of concerned citizens and bureaucrats alike.

Applebee Aviation, based in Banks, Oregon, lost its license to spray pesticides commercially in Oregon on Sept. 25 after the state investigated a former truck driver’s complaint about chemical exposure and found several violations of worker protection laws. It was one of 15 complaints against Applebee since 2010 -- more than any other chemical applicator, according to state data.

Owner Michael Applebee directed his employees to disregard the suspension, according to state investigators. That prompted the Department of Agriculture to seek a temporary restraining order against the company.

Applebee did not respond to a request for comment, but has previously said his company has been “treated unfairly” and called himself a scapegoat.

In the 16 days between the license suspension and the restraining order, Applebee pilots illegally sprayed 16 different parcels of forest. Two of those were on public lands overseen by the state Department of Forestry.

How Applebee was able to conduct those illegal herbicide applications has yet to be explained. Oregon’s agriculture and forestry agencies have declined multiple requests for interviews about Applebee, citing ongoing litigation. But emails and documents released under Oregon’s public records law indicate state forestry officials did not immediately notify field staff or Applebee clients about the suspension, a step that could have prevented the illegal spraying.

In its enforcement notice to Applebee last month, the Oregon Department of Agriculture stressed the importance of preventing further unlicensed spraying. Applications without accountability “threaten the health of workers and of the public, the efficacy and credibility of Oregon’s pesticide licensing program, and the public’s trust in the responsibility of commercial pesticide operators and applicators,” investigators wrote.

Oregon’s agricultural and forestry agencies, along with others, typically work together in forest pesticide investigations. In 2015 Applebee won two contracts from the Department of Forestry. Both began after the state initiated its investigation of the company. Forestry officials have said previously that Applebee, while under investigation, was “assumed innocent until proven guilty.”

On Sept. 25, the state finished the investigation. The Department of Agriculture suspended Applebee’s license that afternoon and informed the Department of Forestry by phone soon after. But earlier that same day, Department of Forestry staff watched an Applebee pilot spray chemicals on the Elliott State Forest on Oregon’s South Coast.

Emails show Applebee was the only bidder on that contract, and some forestry staff had concerns about the outfit ahead of time.

“Have you worked with Applebee?” one asked.

“I think they have more experience now,” another replied. “I will let you know after we are done if there are thing you need to watch for, or you can let me know if they work for you before I get them.”

The application later prompted a complaint more than a month after the incident from two goat farmers who live a quarter-mile from the site. They said they worried residue from herbicides could have tainted their medical marijuana plants or endangered an inmate work crew working in the forest several weeks later.

“There was an ongoing investigation into this helicopter agency, and for them to still use it? It's super irritating,” said Richard Melton, who filed the complaint along with his partner Nicole Zenovitch.

Staff in the regional forestry office began to worry when they saw a news article about Applebee’s license suspension.

“This was our contractor?” one asked in an email.

“Yes” was the reply.

By Sept. 26, the day after Applebee’s license suspension, when its spraying became be illegal, the Department of Forestry still had not informed its field staff.

That morning, the department’s Astoria district forester Charlie Moyer watched an Applebee pilot spray chemicals across two swaths of state forest totaling 71 acres. Those were the final two applications under a reforestation contract worth $61,597, according to state records.

“We finished up today, a job well done,” Moyer wrote to Applebee Aviation operations manager Warren Howe, just before noon on Sept 26. He later told Forestry’s staff he found no issues with the application.

More than a week passed before he knew anything had gone wrong.

A telling exchange on Oct. 7 indicates Department of Forestry administrators waited until that day -- several days after the news was widely reported in the media -- to send an email to its field offices about Applebee’s license suspension.

On Oct. 7, just after 11 a.m., Lisa Arkin of the anti-pesticide group Beyond Toxics sent an email to agriculture and forestry officials asking why Applebee Aviation was still listed on upcoming forestry jobs. Arkin copied several state legislators and the governor’s office on the message.

“It is currently illegal for Applebee Aviation to spray in the State of Oregon, is it not? How is ODF addressing this inconsistency?” Arkin wrote. She also asked for “proof that this situation is being addressed in a timely fashion.”

“It doesn’t seem like the right hand knows what the left hand is doing,” Arkin later said in a phone interview.

At 2:40 p.m., Arkin got a reply from Department of Agriculture Deputy Director Lisa Hanson, who said her staff informed forestry administrators via phone the same day they suspended Applebee’s license. The email does not mention informing the federal Bureau of Land Management, which also allowed Applebee to spray herbicides on public land after its license suspension.

At 3:42 p.m, the forestry agency’s Private Forests Division Chief Peter Daugherty sent an email to agency field staff about the license suspension. He directed them to check for Applebee in state contracts and notifications for spraying on private land to ensure no illegal applications occur.

At 5:56 p.m., Daugherty responded to Arkin and told her the forestry agency sent notice to field staff and was searching all notifications of forest activities involving Applebee’s pesticide spraying.

“We share your concern about protecting natural resources. We are also committed to coordinating efforts with other state agencies,” he wrote.

The same day of that email exchange, Department of Forestry staff compiled a list of notifications about private forest herbicide spraying that involved Applebee Aviation. Because the dates on forestry notifications range up to six months -- a window that has complicated several previous investigations -- emails show Department of Forestry staff members were initially unsure which jobs had not already been completed.

Two days after that exchange, the agency opened an investigation of Applebee Aviation’s illegal Sept. 26 herbicide application on state lands, according to state documents.

When asked to verify the timing of events or whether Oregon Department of Forestry field staff had been notified of the license suspension via phone or other means not in public records sooner than Oct. 7, spokesman Ken Armstrong said the agency could not respond to the question. He cited advice from the Oregon Department of Justice not to comment on pending litigation.