This past week has seen Wallowa County endure what might have been a major crisis, if not disaster: the detection, characterization and recovery of one barrel which once contained herbicide, and eleven others--whose former contents are a bit more mysterious --from Wallowa Lake. Fortunately, the saga has a happy ending. Thus far, the barrels have contained no toxic contents, and were probably empty when they were placed in the lake. Joseph’s drinking water is safe. We can swim again without concern. Fish and fowl are unaffected by toxins. (A bald eagle was keeping a close eye on the diving operations, just in case…) And there was never any presence of “Agent Orange.”
The Environmental Protection Agency and Oregon DEQ did the right thing in responding promptly to public and environmental concerns. By thoroughly investigating the barrels and the surrounding sediment, they provided facts from which we who live and recreate here can make sound decisions, and sleep better at night. We owe them a debt of gratitude (and tax dollars), along with our Sherriff’s marine patrol, and especially Deputy Marc Christman, for keeping both divers and boaters safe.
But while we rested easy in learning the facts of the barrel’s distribution and contents, people outside the county were not so lucky. The Portland Fox News station KPTV and Rob Porter of The Oregonian both reported the erroneous story that barrels containing Agent Orange ingredients were found in Wallowa Lake.
They leapt to this conclusion because of over-enthusiastic reporting, and an error of a single, small, and seemingly insignificant word. The word “or.” A lowly article, to grammarians. The most mundane of words, but to this story, and to the arc of our lives, the most important two letters in the alphabet.
The label on the herbicide barrel said “2,4-D or 2,4,5-T. To make Agent Orange you need 2,4-D AND 2,4,5-T in the correct concentrations and proportions.
EPA spokesman Bill Dunbar noted that an EPA press-release was partly to blame for the Agent Orange Debacle because it incorrectly stated that one barrel “was labeled 2,4-D AND 2,4,5-T” although the image provided by Blue Mountain divers clearly showed the label as 2,4-D OR 2,4,5-T—meaning only one ingredient was or had been in that barrel.
To make matters worse, one caption on my initial story also said “2,4-D and 2,4,5-T.” It was a careless error, but an error with consequences.
The Agent Orange story, which had roots in this careless wording from two local, on-the-scene news sources, soon blossomed into “Wallowa Lake contains barrels labeled Agent Orange.” (Oregon Fishing Forum) and “Agent Orange Zone” which now has its own blog. A documentary filmmaker from New York called The Chieftain and wanted to film a story that seemed to revolve vaguely around how Agent Orange destroyed a small town’s economy, ecosystems, and probably the human population.
The lines between facts, errors of a single word, and full-blown rumormongering can be blurry. Rumormongering and the creation of disasters are much more fun and sell a lot more papers.
Efforts by The Chieftain and EPA to correct and curtail these stories met with little to no response, although the stories are slowly fading as they run out of rumor-stoked oxygen.
The bottom line for Wallowa County is that we have all pulled together, kept our rural common sense and level-headedness, and are ready to move on. There may rightfully be lingering questions about the EPA’s costs of cleanup, the long-term sources of our water, and the loss of some tourist revenue. As your editor, I will make occasional errors of spelling, grammar, and judgment. But bear with me if you can. I love this place, and entirety of people who call it home. We are a community, and although our opinions may be diverse, we rely on one-another more than anything. That unity of community and concern was evident this week. Thanks.