In the spring of 1975, Carol Van Strum’s children were fishing and playing in the river across the street from their farm in the Siuslaw National Forest. Technically, it was still their property, but that didn’t stop a passing tanker truck from spraying a strange substance on everything that lied along the road, including the children. By evening, they were sick.
Van Strum and her partner were looking for a quiet place to raise their family after running Cody’s Books in Berkley during the late 1960s, where they also assisted AWOL Vietnam war draftees.
Looking back at their arrival in Oregon, Van Strum told me, “We were surrounded by National Forests. We thought we were in paradise, until they started spraying us.”
The United States Forest Service (USFS) was spraying the defoliant 2, 4, 5-T. Coupled with equal parts of 2, 4-D, it makes Agent Orange, which was widely used in the Vietnam war to defoliate forest canopies.
Since 2, 4, 5-T only affected broadleaf plants, it created an ideal situation for companies like Georgia Pacific, Weyerhaeuser, and Starker Forests to clear-cut Douglas firs, which were the only things left living after its dispersal.
The spraying continued, Van Strum’s children kept getting sick, chicks and ducklings hatched deformed, and their dog developed sores all over its body. Even loggers and hunters were finding fawns without eyes and aborted deer fetuses elsewhere in the forest.
Van Strum called the road department thinking they’d made a mistake. “It was safe as table salt, it couldn’t have made anyone sick,” they responded.
Van Strum told me with a sigh, “We got used to this.”
Those in positions of power that could have helped usually sided with the timber interests rather than those living in the forest, including many at Oregon State University.
After a letter in the Lincoln County paper by OSU’s Michael Newton praising the spraying, Van Strum couldn’t be quiet any longer. She wrote a letter responding to Newton, and when her neighbors read it, they reached out to her with similar stories and asked what they could do. They began holding meetings, even inviting the USFS.
“We were so dumb!” Van Strum said with a laugh and a sigh, “We thought if we just tell them that this stuff is making us sick, then they won’t use it.”
They responded the same as before: “Safe as table salt.”
They ended up hiring a lawyer to sue the Federal Government to stop the spraying, and they were successful.
But this was only the beginning. Van Strum became involved in subsequent cases, researching federal agencies and chemical companies through Freedom of Information Act requests. One case was on behalf of Vietnam veterans harmed by Agent Orange.
Through all these cases, Van Strum was able to access 100,000 pages of documents. While these documents have been piling up in Van Strum’s barn, they’ve also become a resource for other lawsuits.
This past year, Van Strum and others scanned all the documents and made them available online at poisonpapers.org. The project is already bearing fruit, and Washington is using internal memos available at poisonpapers.org in a suit against Monsanto for knowingly making and selling PCB’s eight years after they knew they were hazardous to public health.
Since winning her original suit, the USFS has changed their practices. They use selective cutting and replant a mixture of trees rather than just Douglas fir. This was what drew Van Strum in the first place.
“We’re having a forest again instead of a cornfield on a mountain. The timber companies are still spraying the hell out of things, but the Forest Service has stopped.”
Van Strum wrote A Bitter Fog documenting her experiences with 2, 4, 5-T.