Carol Van Strum, crusader against Agent Orange, wins prestigious environmental award

  • The international David Brower Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding environmental and social justice work was presented to Strum on March 1, 2018.
  • Strum is the author of “A Bitter Fog,” which tells the story of the fight she helped lead against aerial herbicide spraying in the Five Rivers area of Oregon, which led to a temporary ban on aerial pesticide spraying on federal forests.
  • Though the ban was rescinded, the work done by Strum and others on the issue contributed to a new national forest policy that favors selective harvests without herbicides.

Longtime environmental activist Carol Van Strum is now also the recipient of a prestigious environmental protection award for her decades of work. Strum was awarded the international David Brower Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding environmental and social justice work on March 1, 2018.

Van Strum is the author of “A Bitter Fog,” which tells the story of the fight she helped lead against aerial spraying of Agent Orange and other herbicides in the Five Rivers, Oregon, area in the 1970s and ’80s. After a long legal battle, aerial pesticide spraying on federal forests was banned. Although the ban was rescinded, the work by Van Strum and others contributed to a new national forest policy that favors selective harvests without herbicides. She has also authored three other books and continued her activism and legal work in the defense of the environment.

Van Strum’s massive collection of documents showing fraudulent studies and false data used for poisonous industrial products was digitized and put online under the moniker of the Poison Papers.

Last year Van Strum got involved in another legal battle in to uphold the first American voter-approved ban on aerial pesticide spraying in Lincoln County, Oregon. The Lincoln County Community Rights group is up against a lawsuit from the timber industry to reverse the vote. Van Strum is supporting their efforts through the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

Mongabay, where Van Strum previously worked as an editor, caught up with her by email:

Mongabay: What are your thoughts about being named for this honor?

Van Strum: I am pleased, but hardly for myself. It’s never been about me. The award honors mainly the many people and communities who have put the issue of mass poisonings on the map — that is, whether a corporation or government has the right to expose us to poisons without our consent.

How much of what you experienced in fighting the use of Agent Orange in Oregon in the 1970s to ’80s, which you detail in your book “A Bitter Fog,” still applies today?

What we accomplished back in the ’70s and ’80s was ultimately a complete halt to herbicide use on national forests, entailing a shift from vast clear-cuts to selective harvest and mixed species replanting. On private and corporate owned timberlands and state forests, however, the practice of clear-cutting and massive, aerial herbicide spraying continues, poisoning soil, wildlife, and water.

Particularly in the Pacific Northwest, which is temperate rainforest, there is no possible way to apply poisons aerially without contaminating the surface waters, creeks, rivers, lakes and estuaries that are ubiquitous features of the landscape.

Community efforts are growing to assert human and environmental rights to life and health over the rights of corporations to make profits.

Carol Van Strum, 2014. Photo courtesy of Celina Kishna.

There is so much new science on healthy forests in the past decade alone. Is selective harvesting of trees without herbicides still a solid approach?

My own personal observations are a resounding yes. If you travel or fly around the area where I live, in the central Oregon Coast Range, you can tell immediately what lands are private/corporate owned and which are national forest.

The corporate lands are effectively strip-mined, vast areas of bare soil punctuated by dead stumps here and there, the whole dead landscape sliding into creeks and rivers, not only poisoning aquatic life but silting up the spawning grounds of endangered coho and other salmon.

The national forest, by contrast, is green and thriving, with a varied canopy of hemlock, cedar, alder, maple, et cetera, as well as the commercially valuable Douglas fir.

Forests obviously grew quite well without herbicides before modern plantation forestry was invented.

Back in the 1970s, when the USDA embraced the use of herbicides no longer allowed in Vietnam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers amazingly criticized the idea, saying that northwest forests had evolved over millions of years to the most efficient possible use of the soil, climate, water, and geology of this area, and it was sheer arrogance to think humans could improve on that.

Fraudulent studies and corruption where the use of pesticides and herbicides are concerned — still an issue today?

Absolutely! The fraud and corruption detailed in “A Bitter Fog” are just better concealed today, as E.G. Vallianatos’s recent book, “Poison Spring,” makes abundantly clear.

Vallianatos was a research chemist at the U.S. EPA for 25 years, during the time the fraud was first uncovered. What he reveals is that the entire process of pesticide registration is a sham, as EPA simply accepts summaries of safety testing submitted by the companies, and then EPA staffers cut and paste entire portions of those summaries into a registration approval.

[According to the book], the EPA thus rubber-stamps whatever companies send them, making it extremely difficult for the public ever to see the actual studies or examine the raw data from the companies, which are not available under the Freedom of Information Act because they were never provided to the EPA.

Tell us about the Poison Papers.

The Poison Papers, also available as the Gemstone Files, are a huge, unwieldy mass — several tons — of documents that accumulated in my barn over the last 40 years of research and working on pesticide and poison cases such as the lawsuits against the Forest Service, the Agent Orange veterans’ litigation, personal injury cases by exposed workers, and numerous other cases involving PCBs and dioxin.

The documents reveal corporate and government cover-ups of dioxin studies, collusion enabling continued registration of pesticides based on fraudulent or nonexistent studies, and blatant decisions to continue marketing known carcinogens and teratogens. Many if not most of the material is from discovery in such cases.

Before a leaky roof or forest fire or local rodents could destroy the documents, we scanned them and made them available to the public both as the Poison Papers and as The Gemstone Files. The funding ran out, however, before we could begin to index and label the documents so they are difficult to use, but a team at Columbia University is seeking funding for that possibility.

Carol Van Strum. Photo courtesy of Peggy Brewster.
Carol Van Strum. Photo courtesy of Peggy Brewster.

The Lincoln County Community Rights lawsuit you’re involved in could have a huge impact. What direction do you see the future of aerial pesticide spraying going?

I think the community rights movement is getting stronger nationwide every day, as communities assert their rights to protect citizens from the corporate devastations of aerial spraying, fracking, off-shore oil drilling, and other horrors. Certainly neither the federal nor the state governments, bought and paid for by corporate interests, will act to protect us, so it is up to local governments to do so.

The big issue is whether state and federal laws that place profits over people can pre-empt local government ordinances. Ultimately I think local folks will prevail, but how long that might take is a big question.

The other issue I hope to see in future is recognition that the environment itself — nature — has an inherent right to exist without threat of damage or extinction. For this reason I have intervened in the current industry lawsuit challenging our voter-approved county ban on aerial spraying, representing the ecosystems of the county, speaking like the Lorax for the trees, the wildlife, the rivers.

Banner image: Carol Van Strum, winter 2017. Photo courtesy of Celina Kishna.

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