By Jennifer Grimes
Triplicate staff writer
Smith River lily bulb farmers and nearly 200 supporters gathered Saturday at the Fred Haight boat launch to take a stand against an environmental group that is accusing farmers of misusing chemicals and polluting the Smith River estuary.
Hay bales hung with hand-painted signs proclaiming "Our Community, Our Problem" and "55,000 geese can't be wrong." Some wore cowboy hats, many brandished drinking cups and one used a wolf mask, pretending to be a wolf in sheep's clothing.
"Crying fire' in a crowded theater, when there is none, is criminal. And saying there is chemical contamination, when there is none, and scaring the community for no reason is also criminal," said one of several speakers there to support the farmers.
After several speakers, the crowd trooped to the banks of the Smith River to fill small paper cups with water and raise their glasses in a toast.
The rally was called to counter the presence of members of the Smith River Project, an environmental group which parked at the boat launch Saturday to test water from area wells for pesticide contamination.
About 14 well-users did request that the group sample their wells.
Longtime environmental activist Greg King, who is leading the Smith River Project, said the test results will not be released to the general public for two weeks.
Specifically, the group is testing for a now-banned pesticide called 1,2 Dichloropropane. That chemical, once used by lily farmers and a known carcinogen, was found in several Smith River wells in very high levels in 1983 and continued to be detected in 2001. By then, levels had declined and were below standards set by the federal government for maximum contamination.
They will also be testing for about 40 other farm chemicals, King said. The test results of all 14 wells will be published; however, King said he will not reveal the location of the wells, so as not to jeopardize the identities of the owners.
"Some of these people are afraid. A couple of them even came out here today, but when they saw the crowd, they were afraid and they left," King said Saturday.
"I was really pleased with the turnout, because we are trying to connect with the community in any way we can," he said.
Most of the crowd, however, did not look kindly toward King and his associates. Most said they believed King would do anything in his power to shut down farms and limit use of land around the Smith River.
At one point, King was surrounded for several minutes by a circle of farmers six-deep, eager to confront him.
They spoke with passion about protecting their livelihoods and accused King of spreading falsehoods.
After a long period of berating questions from the crowd, King relented.
"If this many of you feel it's not a problem and that you can take care of it yourselves, we might just go away," he said.
He was then offered a ride to the airport.
One of the group's claims is that farmers regularly spray pesticides in high winds causing chemical drift onto residential homesteads and, in one case, Smith River School.
King claims he himself witnessed the spraying in 35 mph winds blowing straight onto the schoolgrounds.
"If my child went to school there, I would have pulled them out the next day," he said.
When the Del Norte County Department of Agriculture inspector, in charge of enforcing pesticide application rules, was asked if King filed a complaint about the school incident, inspector Jim Buckles said there was none on record.
At Saturday's event, King was asked why he didn't report it.
King said "Jim Buckles lied. I did call him to report it."
Del Norte resident Charlie Compton, angered by King's remark, defended Buckles, saying he is one of the most honest people in the community, yet King persisted and continued to call Buckles a liar.
"He told me I needed to videotape it, with a time and date, to prove that it happened," King said and added that he did not attempt to catch the practice on tape.
At the request of the farmers and the Del Norte County Department of Agriculture, the state's Regional Water Quality Control Board will visit before the end of June to test as many Smith River area wells as possible.