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An Oakland Wine Grape Grower Wages a Costly Fight Against Damaging Pesticide Drift

OAKLAND - The 2010 grape harvest on Legacy Vineyards could have been worse. Considering the wet spring, cool summer and late harvest marred by the arrival of hundreds of hungry migrating birds, the 6 tons of tempranillo grapes and 3 tons of pinot noir were a respectable take.

But the best news for wine growers Kevin and Karen Kohlman was this: Their vines did not get hit this season by pesticides drifting onto their property from surrounding private industrial forestlands. That's a change.

The California couple moved to Oregon in 1999 with dreams of creating a new vineyard. Under their plan, 2010 should have yielded 26 tons of grapes. Instead, year after year they've watched vines wither and die, killed by herbicide drift so severe it has sterilized the soil in places. They've put off launching their own label while they rebuild from the financial damage.

"Every spring and fall I don't worry about the frost," Kohlman said. "I worry about the herbicide spray."

The battle over pesticide drift - how harmful it is and what should be done about it - is old. But in the last year it's gained new attention in Oregon and nationally.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed revisions to restrict herbicide use in order to limit drift. The proposed language for herbicide labels has met with outrage from the chemicals' manufacturers and those who rely on the products to kill weeds and insects.

The pesticide industry, even as it fights the curbs, acknowledges that drift - the unintentional movement of chemicals from the place they're intended - is so challenging a problem that it can't be eliminated.

Perhaps nowhere are the issues as complex as in Oregon, where a rapidly growing number of vineyards share boundaries with farms and private forestlands where herbicide use has been commonplace for decades, often on rugged terrain that makes following product rules difficult.

Oregon - some observers and activists say - also suffers from lax oversight with muddy procedures for investigating complaints, creating a system that favors herbicide users and offers few remedies to those who say they've been harmed.

For the Kohlmans, herbicide drift sparked a years-long legal nightmare that highlights how hard it is to determine where toxic drift may come from, given how widely such chemicals are used in Oregon's rural areas.

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