Oregon Woman Wages War Against `Bitter Fog'

FIVE RIVERS, Ore. - Carol Van Strum had come here in retreat.

She and her husband, Steven, had owned a Berkeley bookstore, had demonstrated against the Vietnam War, had gotten back to the land in rural Northern California.

Their move into the deep backwoods of Oregon's Coast Range in 1974 was to have been their final layer of insulation from the world. She would review books and write. They would farm. Their four children would play and fish in the stream that ran in front of their house, the stream called Five Rivers.

But then the tank trucks came.

Then the helicopters came.

And in trying to withdraw, to cloak themselves from the residual craziness of the 1960s and the distrust of the '70s, the Van Strums found themselves instead at the crux of an issue that could only lead to confrontation. In its attempt to eliminate unwanted plants and speed the growth of timber, the U.S. Forest Service was spraying herbicides - poisons - on the Van Strums' refuge.

Carol Van Strum became an activist. She launched herself first into research, then organization, then litigation.

Her marriage was lost when she and Steven drifted apart, though they remained friends and worked together against herbicide spraying.

She and her peers - a collection of hill people and academic dropouts - took on big bureaucracies. They started with nothing but anger and, after eight years and two court cases, they won.

Along the way, Van Strum experienced intimidation, defeat and victory.

She also knew sorrow. Her four children died in a house fire on New Year's morning of 1978.

"It was very hard for her to know what to do with her life," said John Noell, who had become close friends with the Van Strums. "I think what came out of that was a realization that what she had begun had to be finished. She owed it to her kids."

"I could see her becoming more and more actively involved after that incident," says Eugene lawyer Bruce Anderson, who represented the anti-herbicide activists. "I think she just took that natural caring and nurturing instinct and became a fighter."

Shortly after tank trucks first rolled up in 1975 at the Van Strum farm, garden plants died and chicks, goslings and ducklings were born deformed.

Worse, the bitter mist had been sprayed on the four children as they fished in the stream and all had become ill.

"Her kids were incredibly well-educated," said Noell, now a research associate in Eugene but at the time a biologist who was living over the hill from Five Rivers, in Deadwood. "They were reading the classics by the time they were 6 or 7, and they were so literate in art and science.

"They got sprayed, and that set off that mother-hen part in Carol."

Van Strum began her activism by researching the poisons - 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. She found studies and reports that contradicted those used by the government to cite the chemicals' safety.

When the Forest Service didn't respond to her inquiries, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Newport newspaper. Neighbors she'd never met came out of the woods with stories: livestock that died after being sprayed, deformed fish and wildlife, unusually high numbers of human miscarriages.

"It was the sort of thing where a lot of people didn't even know what was being done," Carol Van Strum said. "It was everyone putting their stories together that gave it strength."

Citizens Against Toxic Sprays (CATS) was formed to give the forest dwellers a united voice against the forces that seemed determined that herbicide use continue - the Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and Dow Chemical Co., manufacturer of the herbicides.

CATS filed a federal lawsuit against the Forest Service in May 1976, claiming an environmental-impact statement for the herbicides was insufficient. U.S. District Judge Otto Skopil issued an order in March 1977 to halt all spraying of 2,4,5-T in the Siuslaw National Forest until deficiencies in the statement were cleared up, effectively eliminating the spray program for a year.

Van Strum and her neighbors celebrated their limited victory.

The Van Strum children tied a box of fishing flies, each one representing a principal player in the court case, and presented it to Anderson, who had taken the case after several lawyers turned it down.

In 1978, the court order that halted the spraying was lifted when the Forest Service modified its impact statement to meet legal requirements. But in lifting the ban, Skopil so chastised the Forest Service that its spray program never regained the footing it had lost.

Another anti-herbicide group, Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP), filed a new federal lawsuit to end the use of 2,4,5-T. In 1983, the EPA and Dow Chemical both agreed the herbicide should be withdrawn from the market.

The eight-year saga became Van Strum's first book, "A Bitter Fog," published in 1983.

While writing her book, Van Strum interviewed a Vietnam veteran, Paul Merrell, who was living in Idaho. During the war, he'd been exposed to many chemicals.

Merrell and his 5-year-old son, Zack, "went to see Carol to get information and never really left," said Noell. "Here was Paul with this young son who really needed a serious mother. It was all the right ingredients."

Merrell became involved in the anti-herbicide movement and was the chief plaintiff - serving as his own lawyer - in the NCAP suit filed in April 1981 against the Forest Service to halt spraying in the Siuslaw.

He graduated from law school at the University of Oregon in 1987. Now 44, he does consultation work in cases across the country involving herbicides and dioxin.

While Van Strum and Merrell were trying to start a family, Van Strum had two miscarriages that she suspects were related to the herbicides sprayed on her farm from 1975 to 1981.

So it was a surprise when Nikko, their son, came along 3 1/2 years ago.

Reminiscing on 16 years of jousting with regulatory agencies, Van Strum and Merrell can laugh or find irony with each memory.

Despite humorous moments, frustrations build and battles grow wearisome. Sometimes Van Strum would like to just withdraw from it all.

"I'd like to do something else with my life other than fight bureaucrats," she said. "The trouble is, where do you go?"