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In Oregon, Helicopters Spray Weed Killers near People under West Coast's Weakest Protections

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When James Aldridge cleaned out his drinking water tanks this year, he discovered an oily sheen he thinks came from oil used in aerial weed killer sprays. He now drinks bottled water.
Rob Davis/The Oregonian

Each year, helicopters spray weed killers on more than 165 square miles of Oregon timberland, an area larger than the city of Portland.

The spraying happens under the Pacific Northwest's most industry-friendly regulations.

Washington requires a wide no-spray zone around nearby homes. Oregon doesn't.

Washington says when it's OK to spray, right down to setting a 7 mph maximum wind speed. Oregon doesn't.

The Oregonian reviewed regulations in four states and found Oregon stacks the deck in favor of the timber industry. The state does less to protect people and the environment from drifting chemicals than neighboring states -- Idaho, Washington and California.

Oregon's rules even do more for fish than people. Streams with fish get a 60-foot buffer from aerial sprays. Residential properties get none.

Oregon's lax regulation is drawing scrutiny from state lawmakers after a helicopter pilot repeatedly flew over homes while spraying outside Gold Beach last October. Curry County residents standing outside said they felt chemicals land on their faces. Twenty complained. The pilot's spraying license was later suspended for a year and he was fined $10,000.

The incident drew strangers together -- a retired nurse, a former firefighter, a logger -- and turned them into advocates.

"We feel we've been violated tremendously and the state still won't do anything for us," said John Burns, an assistant volunteer fire chief who fell ill after being sprayed last year. "We want the regulations and laws changed - at least brought up to the standards of our surrounding states."