"Knowing about how the law works, it’s even more disturbing because the law actually protects plants more than people from pesticides and herbicides."
On an overcast day in downtown Eugene, attorney Marianne Dugan sits in a well lit office surrounded by art from her children, newspaper clippings, and an array of hanging plants. She gazes thoughtfully out the window as she recalls how she first became involved in her work with pesticides.
Shortly after her daughter was born and before she began law school, Dugan was living in Ashland, Oregon and had been invited to participate in a panel examining pesticide-related health issues experienced by farm workers. At the panel, Dugan learned about the dangers of exposure to the herbicide Roundup. That evening upon returning home, she looked out her living room window to see her landlord painting a stump in the yard with the very same herbicide.
“So we went out and said, ‘Were you going to tell us? Because our daughter plays on this,’ and he said, ‘Oh this stuff is really healthy — you can eat it.’” This experience illuminated an essential duality for Dugan – within Oregon there are people working to get rid of pesticides as well as those who see absolutely no harm in using them.
One of Dugan’s first cases when she worked at the Western Environmental Law Center was a suit filed against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for not disclosing inert ingredients in pesticides. An inert ingredient serves the purpose of adhering, dissolving, distributing or preserving the chemicals in herbicides, but does not kill pests by itself.
While Dugan and her legal team argued that the inert ingredients should be fully disclosed, the EPA’s response “was that the pesticide companies say, ‘Well, that’s a trade secret,’ and they don’t want people competing with them by knowing what’s in these products.”
Going up against timber and chemical industries as an attorney can be challenging. As a farmer or forester under the Right to Farm and Forest Act, Dugan explains, you cannot be sued as long as you use a product as directed by the instructions on the packaging. In addition, industry tends to take a defensive stance towards such cases due to the rippling effect of forestry legislation.
“I didn’t even realize how huge the forces are against anti-pesticide work until people start looking into what you’ve accomplished.”
In one case, Dugan and two other lawyers were pursuing a case to get the Forest Service to disclose the impacts of indiscriminately spraying 10,000 acres of forest with BT (Bacillus Thuringiensis) – a chemical with low toxicity for humans but deadly for moths and butterflies. They won on appeal but the court claimed that were it not for the chemical drift, they would have let the Forest Service continue spraying. Not long after, Dugan received a call from the Helicopter Sprayers of America and Forest Practices Committee informing her that they planned to take the closed case to the Supreme Court. Suddenly, because the Court of Appeals covers most of the Western United States, a 10,000 acre case could actually have broad impacts on forestry legislation. Through her work, Dugan has found that even the smallest of cases can provoke widespread opposition. And yet, working on a case close to home might also have the power to catalyze sweeping legislative change.