Reporting Herbicide Abuse

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Several years ago when challenging our association about careless spraying of a toxic herbicide, I learned several lessons.

Perhaps the most important lesson was that neither state nor federal authorities are there to stop dangerous practices unless they are sizable. Our community has about 4,000 acres of common mountain meadows which we members have access to for recreational purposes. Because everything ultimately washes down mountains to lower elevations, I believe those living on mountains should have a higher standard or responsibility to protect those lands below them. The leaders from our land owners association decided to kill invasive weeds by liberal application of 2,4,D Amine.

Another lesson learned was that state regulations apply to professional applicators, wherein they have to follow strict criteria. For an organization like ours, there are basically no rules or laws that directly apply. There were two enforcement agents for the entire state and primary enforcement was primarily focused on ranchers and farmers. A professional applicator is required to post where the herbicide has been applied, mix herbicides properly and follow specific safety rules. Our association not only refused to tell us where the spray was being applied but stated the law did not require them to do so. In checking the law I found they were right and no legal requirement was in place for private applications.

Which Government Agency?

My first effort was to enlist the help of the EPA. I incorrectly assumed the Environmental “Protection” Agency was there to ensure that we citizens were protected from toxic materials. I was politely passed off to the state Department of Agriculture (DOA). They in turn listened to my concern and informed me that they did not have the ability or inclination to look into the problem. Because regulation fell under the DOA, this simply did not sound right, so I then wrote the governor explaining their lack of concern.

The same person in the DOA who blew me off initially suddenly had renewed interest and said he would dispatch an investigator to check matters out. The investigator showed up and advised they lacked enforcement ability other than utilization of proper safety equipment while handling the herbicide. I had called, written and pleaded and was right back where I started on getting regulatory agencies involved, with the exception that the investigator did stop the spraying until the applicators could equip themselves with proper safety gear.

Herbicide Impact on Deer and Elk

What initiated my concern was when I had been accidentally sprayed as I drove down the road with the truck window rolled down. The reaction was immediate. I had difficulty breathing and my eyes burned so badly I was barely able to see to drive home. When I asked what I had been sprayed with I was met with stony silence, making me suspicious.

Our property is a natural refuge for wild animals and I had noticed deer and elk with large tumors hanging on them. Whether they were caused by a parasite or from the toxic spray I couldn’t tell. I had never noticed deer or elk in this condition previous to the spraying and when they stopped spraying I did not observe any more deer or elk with tumors. After the herbicide has been applied it can be ingested, absorbed or inhaled by humans or animals. I had additional concerns since it was also used along ditches which were then plowed back onto dirt roads where it was converted into road dust and became airborne when vehicles went down the road.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture provided me a study wherein contaminated road dust which had been previously sprayed with 2,4,D Amine was a legitimate concern. In addition, I had observed spray being applied to specific areas and noticed later the same day deer and elk browsing on the herbicide-treated vegetation. The applicators wore back packs walking throughout the meadows and along streams spraying this toxic material everywhere. All this time those responsible for the spraying were indignantly proclaiming they posed no health risk and refused to reveal the areas treated so they could be avoided by landowners.

Kill Weeds vs. Protecting the Environment

Being made aware of the harmful effects of this toxin was not the issue because there are numerous reports available to detail the dangers of this herbicide. The real problem was indifference by those who would prefer to kill weeds over being responsible for protecting the environment, animals and humans. The government officials quickly stated this herbicide had been approved by the EPA and was therefore acceptable for use and there was nothing they could or would do. It was a bureaucratic morass at its worst when trying to obtain enforcement.

When asked about the harmful effects on animal, bird, insect and human health, the same government agencies would not answer or evaded the issue by repeating it was an approved herbicide. Involving other environmental groups was equally frustrating. They were not interested, because they are involved in so many other destructive areas that they simply did not have time or volunteers to assist but they at least wished me success. Some meaningful information was gained from the environmental watch group Beyond Pesticides, which proved helpful and educational. Most of our applicators believed that if a little works then a lot will work better. It was being used liberally throughout our common lands.

Over-Worked Government Agencies

This is not intended as condemnation of our government agencies. Government agencies have larger problems to deal with than 4,000 acres in a private community. Additionally the state agencies required landowners to kill invasive weeds and their recommended method was with toxic herbicides. The Agency’s primary interest was that the applicator used proper safety gear and they had no additional interest in public safety. It was a learning experience in dealing with all these different agencies and mostly it was like chasing your tail and getting nowhere. I am confident that these agencies have many redeeming qualities but on the specific issue of controlling herbicide/pesticide use, it was not very apparent from my viewpoint. They mandated killing weeds, openly advocated using powerful herbicides, and had very little interest in protecting the public, animals or insects.

Suggestions for Remedy Limited

I can not offer suggestions to help any reader who happens to find themselves in a similar situation. The most valuable resources were properly identifying the herbicide and its side effects, plus exercising perseverance, persistence and patience. Perhaps nothing is more true than the saying “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” but you have to squeak long, hard and to the right people. It also helps when dealing with reluctant people to stick to the main issue with just the facts and not be drawn into peripheral unrelated issues, which they will try to draw you into. It can be a long and grueling process and a frustrating one. But don‘t give up, because that is what they expect you to do if you have a small violation. 

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their challenges in the mountains go to

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