Four wells show 1,2-D traces

June 24, 2002 11:00 pm

By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

Preliminary results of 14 Smith River wells tested by a Sonoma-based environmental group show four wells contain the pesticide 1,2-Dichloropropane at levels below or just above the federal government's action level of five parts-per-billion.

"Now we're going to move forward with testing for a lot of other things," said Greg King, director of the group Smith River Project.

Test results for about 40 other farm chemicals are not completed yet, but are expected soon.

The chemical 1,2-D, once used on lily fields around Smith River, was banned in the 1980s.

Though King will not reveal the exact location of the wells or the names of their owners, he said the four wells that tested positive for 1,2-D are about two miles south of the Smith River township and all within the same proximity.

The results of those positive tests were: 1 part-per-billion in one well, 4.5 parts-per-billion for a second well, 5 parts-per-billion for a third well and 5.6 for a fourth. The 10 other wells did not contain the chemical. According to King, the four wells, added to three others his group tested six months ago, brings to seven the number of wells testing positive for 1,2-D.

King and his group, along with a hired lab analyst, descended onto the Fred Haight boat ramp in Smith River June 15 to publicly test the wells of all Smith River residents requesting the service.

He and his group have studied the Smith River estuary and the lily bulb farms on it for about two years. King said his concern about the use of pesticides on farms near the river mouth was piqued last year when he saw chemicals sprayed next to Smith River School.

King has long been involved in environmental groups and activities including the formation of Earth First in Humboldt County 16 years ago. He also is credited with finding and helping launch the campaign to save the Headwaters Forest, a stand of old-growth redwoods in Humboldt County.

King claims the state's Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Del Norte County Department of Agriculture dropped the ball in 1983 when 1,2-D was first found at very high levels in some Smith River wells.

Though levels of the chemical in wells have dropped significantly, King said any amount of the chemical is a concern.

"These findings are significant in their own right and they may be important in terms of analyzing what, if any, impacts that several highly toxic pesticides currently used in the Smith river Plain may have on humans and wildlife," reads the Smith River Project news release issued yesterday.

Lily farmers, however, have never disputed that 1,2-D was a problem in the 1980s. They say they stopped using it when tests showed the chemical was found in wells.

State and county officials and the farmers say monitoring since 1983 shows the level of 1,2-D decreasing and, in most cases, falling below levels the federal government feels is unsafe.

The farmers also emphasize that they are consistently, and often, monitored by state and county pesticide regulation officials.

King said Smith River Project testing will now broaden to soil and river water testing. They will also closely examine studies now under way by a handful of Humboldt State University graduate students on fish within the estuary area.

The Humboldt studies will be in the form of Master's theses and will not be available until they are completed and published sometime this year.

"We got into this for the fish," King said about his curiosity of whether the Smith River groundwater is contaminated.

So far, the group has spent about $10,000 on the water testing and other research and traveling, according to King's estimates.

And he is ready to spend more to convince lily farmers there is a future in organic methods.

King said he already has a commitment from the owner of the company, Organic Bouquet, to buy any and all organically grown lily bulbs grown here.

To convince local farmers it can be done, King said he is working to bring a Holland-based organic lily farmer to conduct a free seminar.

Lily growers here say they have studied the possibility of growing organically for 30 years, and nothing has worked yet. More than 50 percent of an organically grown crop of lily bulbs is lost to worms in each trial, according to local biologist Lee Riddle.