By Jennifer Grimes
Triplicate staff writer
Smith River lily bulb farmers met with supporters yesterday to learn more about the environmental group challenging their pesticide use.
About 50 farmers and land owners along with owners of Rumiano Cheese, Del Cur Supply and Flora Pacifica, said they fear the Smith River Project, a Sonoma Countybased environmental group, has the ultimate goal of blocking their use of land near the Smith River by any means possible.
The complex federal Clean Water Act will likely be the Smith River Group's main tool to launch lawsuits, according to Becky Crockett, a project manager and environmental scientist for an international environmental engineering firm and a relative of lily bulb growers.
"The threat is real,"Crockett said.
Members of the Smith River Project say they've been researching the Smith River estuary and the chemical application practices of the farmers for two years. Last week, the group launched an effort to test wells in and around the lily fields for chemical contamination.
The Smith River Project members say they are worried chemicals are leaching into the groundwater and threatening the health of salmon and steelhead in the river.
Project members have publically accused the bulb growers of using chemicals in excess of the law. The group's director, Greg King, has also accused one farmer of spraying chemicals in a 35-mile-per-hour wind within 20 feet of Smith River School.
King said he witnessed the spraying event on April 9, 2001 and was disgusted.
"I could not witness that and not do anything about it," King said last week.
Yet King never reported the alleged violation to the Del Norte County Agriculture Commissioner in charge of enforcing state pesticide application laws, according to Agriculture Commissioner Glenn Anderson.
"We would be the agency to report them to. We have a monthly report and summary we send to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. But I don't recall any complaints made about spraying by the school," Anderson said.
Anderson said spraying of lily bulb fields does occur next to Smith River School, but after school hours and using practices to prevent chemical drift onto school grounds.
Inspector for the Department of Agriculture Jim Buckles confirmed there is no record of any complaints by King or the Smith River Project.
An attempt to reach King yesterday was unsuccessful.
One of King's stated concerns is that high levels of the now banned chemical 1,2 Dichloropropane found in Smith River wells in the early 1980's have not been monitored or corrected by the state's Regional Water Quality Control Board or the county health department since then.
Yesterday, the farmers said their chemical use and the possibility of well contamination is not worrying them.
They have compiled well water test data done by the water quality control board in 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1990, 1991 and 2001 which show the initial contamination of 1,2-D steadily fell each year. All wells for which there is data now are below the government's maximum contamination level. And of the 97 other chemicals tested for in the wells, none were detected, according to test reports issued by the water quality control board.
"Quite frankly, the issue is not well testing. We have the data and we are regularly monitored and inspected. But the Smith River Project will be around the next corner," Crockett said.
"This is just a first attack," she added.
In yesterday's meeting, Crockett used her professional experience in environmental engineering projects and collaborations with other environmental action groups to advise the farmers where they may be vulnerable to lawsuits.
"This group is linked with groups we don't typically sit down and negotiate with in the projects my company does, because they don't want to negotiate.
"Unfortunately, they are linked with Earth First, they have an agenda and that is to come in and take the land," Crockett said.
She warned that one tool such groups do use is the federal Clean Water Act which has many complex regulatory strings attached to it, especially in relation to wetlands and lands next to protected waters such as the Smith River.
In a public commentary this week, King promised not to resort to lawsuits and said his main priority is clean water for the residents and the river's fish.
"The Smith River Project is not interested in litigation. It's a divisive, last resort tactic that we will not pursue," King said.
In an interview last week, however, King said his group has consulted several law firms and that he does have material for a case.
"In terms of litigation, we have had many discussions with different law firms and legal defense funds. If we find something is wrong there, we could sue the county, the chemical users and chemical manufacturers, which are more liable because they come in and convince the farmers that the chemicals are OK to use," King said last week.
The group of farmers and their supporters have lobbied the Regional Water Quality Control Board to come back and test the wells independently of SRP's tests to get a clear answer of whether contamination exists.
"They are not going to be here this weekend, but they have agreed to come the last two weeks of June and would like to test all the drinking wells they can," Buckles announced.