By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

An attack has been launched on the Smith River lily bulb farmers and the Del Norte County Health Department by a well-funded environmental group.

Citing the protection of the Smith River and its fish as its primary directive, the Smith River Project, as the group is called, claims Del Norte lily farmers use an excess of life-threatening chemicals and apply them using questionable practices.

andquot;We don't want to end or even reduce lily production. We just want to reduce and eventually end dependence on chemicals that may be harming the people and wildlife of the lower Smith River,andquot; said Greg King, director of the Smith River Project.

The farmers and their supporters, including Jim Waldvogel, chairman of the Smith River Advisory Council which studies fish populations and watersheds, say the attack is not based in fact and is an extremist attempt to revert the Smith River community back to the pre-Columbian stage of natural history.

andquot;They're on a crusade. They have a zero-tolerance attitude and I was very uncomfortable after my conversation with Greg King,andquot; Waldvogel said.

Concern flared throughout the farming community when a flyer appeared last week at several Smith River area bulletin boards offering free well water testing.

On the flyer, two photographs, one showing a danger sign and the other a tractor spraying a field appear with information about contaminated wells found there in the early 1980s.

In recent weeks, King has contacted many of the lily bulb farm owners to inform them of his project.

Funded by several large corporations like the Patagonia clothing company, and large grant trusts like the Goldman Foundation, King's group seeks to eliminate all chemical use along the entire length of the Smith River, especially in the estuary near the mouth and to convert as much private land as possible into protected park land along the Smith.

On June 15, King and representatives from several other environmental action groups will offer free well water testing to all Smith River residents living north of Moseley Road.

Poisoned groundwater with cancer-causing pesticides is what they are trying to find.

If they find it, they will launch lawsuits against Del Norte County, the chemical users and the chemical manufacturers, King said.

andquot;Our preliminary research shows four chemicals are being used in excess of the federal government's limits in endangered species habitat and we have reports that pesticide drift occasionally, if not regularly, flows into neighbors' yards. Both instances would represent growers' violations of state and federal laws,andquot; King said.

It is the county's and the state's responsibility, King said, to protect its citizens from such hazards.

andquot;The state is dropping the ball ... Everyone with a well in Smith River was supposed to have been provided with a filter by the county, but they weren't,andquot; he said.

Studies done on many Smith River wells in the 1980s by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, did show high levels of a now banned pesticide called 1,2-Dichloropropane.

At the time, the maximum allowable contamination level of 1,2-D was 10-parts per billion (now it is down to five-parts per billion). In many wells, the level was more than that. In one case, 160-parts per billion was measured.

King said despite those results, the water quality control board took no action and did not notify anyone of the contamination.

andquot;For nearly 20 years, the state did nothing about what is a serious contamination issue. None of the long-time residents whose wells we tested last year had ever been informed of a possible contamination issue,andquot; reads the group's Web site.

Many of the well owners, however, said Thursday at a gathering that regional water staff members continued to monitor the wells until the levels of 1,2-D fell below the alarm level.

And regional director of the water quality control board, Tuck Vath, said yesterday that monitoring was done throughout the years and the reports from the well tests were distributed widely.

Doris Bolen, 83 owned the most contaminated well and confirmed that she received a detailed report of the water test and many throughout the years.

She also said she drank from the well for many years and has not suffered any medical problems related to contaminated water and that she does not have, nor has she ever had, cancer.

The most recent well tests by the water quality control board were done in August 2001 and focused on three historically contaminated wells. Results showed the levels of 1,2-D dropped from 160-parts per billion to 1.6 parts per billion in one well, 0.79-parts per billion in the second well and no detectable results in the third.

Vath said such a drop is a good sign. Though the andquot;Public Health Goalandquot; is 0.5 parts per billion for 1,2-D, Vath said that goal is not a requirement but andquot;an added level of safety to shoot for.andquot;

Another accusation by King contends the local lily farmers, some worse than others, are unregulated and without monitoring by the state or federal government.

Farmer Don Crockett of United Lily Growers said that's not true.

andquot;We have representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency here all the time. We are constantly being monitored and watched,andquot; Crockett said.

He added that the farmers must follow the California state regulations on pesticide and other chemical use within an endangered species zone. Those restrictions, he said, are much stronger than those put out by the federal government.

King acknowledges the fact that all of the Smith River farmers stopped using 1,2-D in the early 1980s when it was banned, but he fears current legal chemicals the farmers use are causing medical problems and threatening salmon.

According to Del Norte County Department of Agriculture Administrator Jim Buckles, none of the chemicals now used on farms were detected in wells during the August 2001 tests.

Nitrates were found in the tests, but not at dangerous levels. Cow manure, Buckles said, is likely the source of the nitrates found.

Biologist and researcher for many of the lily bulb farms, Lee Riddle, told a gathering of farmers and politicians Thursday that King's group is to be feared.

andquot;They are connected with many other groups. It's pretty obvious that when you have a bunch of warriors gathering on the hill there's going to be a battle,andquot; Riddle said.

To find out more about the Smith River Project, its partners and funding, visit Web sites by the same name and by the title andquot;Tides Center.andquot;

To ask for a free well water test call the Smith River Project at 707-522-8567 by June 12. It is necessary to set up an appointment so that staff members of the private company Analytical Sciences, of Petaluma, can collect the water from the well.

Collected water samples will be tested for 1,2-D at the public boat launch on Fred Haight Drive on June 15 in a mobile lab and results given within 20 minutes.

Parts of all of the samples will also be taken back to the Petaluma lab for more extensive tests.

King has agreed to give Harry Harms of Hastings Bulb Farms a portion of each sample as well, so that the farmers may have them tested by a lab of their own choosing.