Oregonian Story: Whistleblower videos reveal helicopter spraying workers with weed killers

By  Rob Davis
The Oregonian/ Oregon Live
May 20, 2015

Click here to read the story on OregonLive and view the videos.

Exposed atop the barren clearcut in Oregon’s coastal mountains, he hid in the only place he could.

A helicopter circled overhead, spraying a fine mist of toxic weed killers. Darryl Ivy took refuge inside his pickup: Windows up, doors shut.

The scene was captured on camera, one of more than 200 videos Ivy recorded on his smartphone.

Again and again, herbicides rained down. The milky chemical mix stained Ivy’s windshield white and turned his phlegm red.

Ivy, a truck driver, spent 17 days this spring on a spray crew in Douglas County, the heart of Oregon’s timber country.

He got sprayed so often it became routine.

Don’t worry about it, Ivy said the pilot told him. It won’t hurt you.

Troubled by what he saw, Ivy documented his working conditions day after day. He recently provided hours of time-stamped clips and hundreds of photographs to The Oregonian/OregonLive.

The photos and videos provide damning proof of what can happen deep in Oregon’s forests when no one is looking. The scenes could have come from a Hitchcock movie.

They catch a helicopter pilot repeatedly unleashing hazardous chemicals on Ivy and others.

The clips show drivers moving leaky trucks covered in weed killers past homes, campgrounds and rivers. One driver dips a bucket used to measure atrazine, a chemical that easily pollutes water, into a stream.

In another video, Ivy chronicles how he and a co-worker drove chemical trucks high on a narrow logging road, moving atop eroded earth that appears to have freshly slid away. In others, they pump water out of streams without first notifying the necessary state agencies.

Nothing is more worrisome than the number of times the helicopter sprays over workers. Depending on the chemicals used, workers aren’t allowed to enter spray sites for up to 48 hours. Directly spraying workers is illegal. It’s also illegal to allow chemicals to drift onto workers.

One of the weed killers, Velossa, which is identified in the videos, can cause irreversible eye damage. Another, 2,4-D, causes skin irritation. Breathing even its vapors can cause dizziness.

If such chemicals land on workers’ clothes, they’re supposed to take them off and wash their skin for 15 minutes. Ivy said he was never told that. He wore the same clothes for three days before realizing that might be the reason his skin felt itchy.

Industry representatives insist that timber companies and their contractors follow the rules. They say they adhere to federally approved instructions for each chemical.

Documentation like Ivy’s is rare. Regulators seldom are present during spray operations so there is little independent evidence of what goes on.

An Oregon Department of Forestry monitor was on the site last month at the time the videos show Ivy being sprayed in his truck. An agency spokesman said the observer didn’t see any violations but wouldn’t answer more specific questions.

State agencies investigate after-the-fact complaints, but those are infrequent. In 2014, the Oregon Department of Agriculture investigated six cases about aerial sprays in forestry.

Oregon environmental groups and citizens cite instance after instance in which spraying operations have gone awry, poisoning people and property. They have pressed state agencies and legislators to more tightly regulate industrial spraying. Their demands have gone nowhere.

Lisa Arkin, executive director of the advocacy group Beyond Toxics, said Ivy’s videos as described to her confirm her suspicions about the timber industry’s spraying practices.

“I understand better why they fight tooth and nail against any disclosure or monitoring or advanced notification,” she said. “Because they wouldn’t have the ability to hide this from the public.”

The Oregonian/OregonLive shared three videos with Ted Reiss, timberlands manager for Seneca Jones Timber Co. The Eugene firm hired Applebee Aviation, which did the spraying.

Two clips show herbicides being sprayed directly above Ivy’s crew. In one, a Seneca forester is nearly sprayed.

Reiss said the forester was not sprayed. The company’s observers, Reiss said, “did not observe anything during the applications in question that would substantiate Mr. Ivy’s claims, but we take such accusations seriously and are fully cooperating” with two state investigations.

Mike Applebee, owner of Applebee Aviation, declined to comment. The company employed Ivy for the Douglas County project. The pilot, David McDaniel, didn’t return telephone messages.

Ivy remains outraged at his experience.

He paused repeatedly during interviews, coughing blood into a stained white towel he now carries everywhere.


Each year, helicopters spray weed killers on more than 165 square miles of Oregon timberland, an area larger than the city of Portland. They do it under the West Coast’s weakest regulations.

The practices are governed by the Agriculture and Forestry departments. They oversee laws that give companies far more discretion to decide how and where to spray than in neighboring states.

Timber companies and helicopter sprayers describe themselves as conscientious stewards of forestlands, following layers of heavy regulation to ensure weed killers are used safely. The chemicals kill and control weeds that sprout after timber is cut, allowing fir seedlings to grow.

Reiss, Seneca Jones’ timberlands manager, emphasized last fall how responsible his company’s spray practices were.

“Our neighbors … feel better about the entire situation knowing that we have a suite of professionals on the ground,” he said.

Seneca owns the Douglas County land where Ivy worked last month.

Industry representatives repeated Reiss’s message at the Legislature, successfully lobbying this session to kill a bill to establish new no-spray buffers around homes and schools.

But buffers would have provided little relief to Ivy and other workers employed by Applebee Aviation.

Seneca foresters were nearby as some spraying operations unfolded. In one video, a Seneca observer is taking a wind reading as a helicopter swoops overhead, spraying just a few feet away from him.

Applebee pilots have sprayed illegally before, Agriculture Department enforcement records show.

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.

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.


It started with a job posting on Craigslist.

Applebee Aviation was looking for a truck driver with a special license to haul hazardous materials.

Though he’s a helicopter mechanic, Ivy was qualified. And he needed the money. He’d moved to Oregon from Alaska in late 2014, working part time at the Aurora State Airport to pay his wife’s medical bills.

In early April, he joined an Applebee spraying crew racing against nature’s clock. The workers had a narrow window to use chemicals to prevent weeds from sprouting and competing with Douglas firs, the timber industry’s money crop. Ivy began hauling jet fuel and barrels of weed killers throughout Douglas County.

As the herbicides started getting sprayed on him, Ivy opted to stick out the job for a few weeks. The spraying season was nearly over.

He said the people around him didn’t mind the circumstances. The pilot reassured him. Seneca Jones foresters supervising the sprays didn’t raise concerns, either. They didn’t report anything out of the ordinary to their boss. Another driver told Ivy he’d been sprayed before, too.

In one video, a pilot sprays in conditions that are “way too windy,” the other driver tells Ivy.

Ivy asks in another video about neighbors who complained. “Pansies,” a driver says. Deer in the way? “They all get sprayed,” a forester says.

Ivy is a tough guy, a 45-year-old gym rat with a barrel chest. He assumed he would get used to it.

“I knew I was getting sprayed every day,” Ivy said. “But I thought I was resilient.”

But after just a few days on the crew, he started coughing blood. It came in hacking fits, up from his chest and then down from his sinuses. He broke out in red welts that still dotted his arms and neck two weeks later.

Graphic videos show it all.

Finally, on April 26, he’d had enough. Ivy left and went straight from the job site to the emergency room at Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg.

Hospital staff immediately put him in a decontamination shower, sealed his clothes in a bucket and kept him in an isolation room, equipped with a special ventilation system used when treating highly infectious patients.

A doctor diagnosed him with “acute chemical exposure” and “acute contact dermatitis,” according to medical records Ivy provided to The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Three weeks after leaving, Ivy remains concerned about his future and his health. He has retained two attorneys and filed a worker’s comp claim with Applebee.

His cough persists, coming in wheezy fits. He’s thrown away socks, a pair of shoes, three t-shirts, pants — anything he wore in the field. He keeps waiting to feel normal again. But he doesn’t yet. His lungs keep burning.

“When I was on site I was thinking I’d bounce back really quick,” he said. “But it’s got me a little worried. I can’t breathe right.”

— Rob Davis