Healdsburg grape grower raises alarm over Northwestern Pacific Railroad’s herbicide spraying

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At the edge of Bob Dempel’s vineyard along the railroad tracks near Healdsburg, the leaves on dozens of vines appear badly deformed.

A little more than 1,200 pounds, or a half-ton, of plump and juicy pinot noir grapes that Dempel harvested from the vines this week were stacked nearby in trays, the fruit wasting in the summer sun. Dempel, 79, said he is planning to torch the fruit.

The longtime North Coast grower alleges his crop loss was due to spraying for weed control along the adjacent railroad tracks running south of Bailhache Avenue, near the intersection with Healdsburg Avenue. The tracks in that area are maintained by the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, the freight operator that in 2011 resumed service along the line, although farther to the south.

The office of the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner is investigating a complaint Dempel filed with the county about the spraying. “This has consumed my life,” the grape grower said.

The case could have far-reaching implications for railroad operators and for farmers and ranchers who have property along the tracks. Rail activities, including weed abatement, could come under greater scrutiny depending on the outcome of the investigation.

“Absolutely it’s a concern going forward,” said Tony Linegar, the county’s agricultural commissioner. “Obviously, if the evidence shows the rail line is responsible, we’re going to have to review the materials they used and the method they used to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

The contractor who applied the herbicide on March 24 did so under contract with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad.

“From my point of view, it’s a bad situation,” said John Williams, Northwestern Pacific’s president. “We still don’t know what really happened.”

Dempel said three other growers near the Bailhache Avenue vineyard suffered damage from the suspected herbicide contamination. Dempel would not identify them.

Linegar confirmed that the county’s investigation has grown to include several grape growers, but county officials declined to name the growers, citing a desire to maintain confidentiality for parties contacting the Ag Commissioner’s Office.

Dempel agreed to speak publicly about the case this week only after he finished harvesting about 20 tons of grapes from his vineyard and delivered the fruit to Bogle Vineyards.

Dempel said lab tests he commissioned showed the grapes to be free of unwanted chemical residues. But he fears lingering fallout, including potential economic losses, once people discover that one of his vineyards may have been hit by a chemical spray.

He said he and his wife, Shirley, “worked our lifetimes to develop a brand, and in one fell swoop, we are having to defend ourselves, at great cost.”

Showing off his vineyard, Dempel this week walked along the railroad tracks to reach his property, where he stopped to show grape leaves that appeared to be cupped and curled.

Documents Dempel obtained from the Ag Commissioner’s Office show that Paul Washburn with Davis-based AgriChem Services, Inc. sprayed a combination of herbicides in the area of the vineyard March 24. The chemicals included glyphosate, commonly known as Roundup, and clopyralid, also known as Stinger.

A handwritten notation on the work order stated, “Do not drift onto grapes.”

Reached by phone Thursday, Washburn confirmed the March 24 spraying. But he would not say what method was used to apply the chemicals.

“It was all legal and proper,” he said.

Asked whether any spray hit vines, Washburn said, “I don’t believe it did.”

He disputed that Dempel’s vines were damaged.

Williams, with Northwestern Pacific, said the rail agency sprays for weeds twice a year along the 271 miles of tracks between Schellville and Eureka. Only a 62-mile section of rail, from Windsor to Schellville, is currently in operation with twice-weekly freight service.

Williams said federal law requires the tracks to be maintained for safety reasons.

He said he wanted the weeds removed on the tracks running near Dempel’s vineyards because the rail agency is weighing extending freight service to Healdsburg.

“I wanted to get the weeds down and see how much work needed to be done to rehabilitate the tracks,” Williams said.

Since resuming freight operation four years ago, the railroad has never taken a complaint about spraying for weed control causing damage, Williams said.

“If it happened, and we have proof it did, we would try to resolve the issue with the property owner,” Williams said. “We don’t have any proof damage occurred.”

Former Congressman Doug Bosco, an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat, is a co-founder and owner of Northwestern Pacific. The tracks where the alleged spraying incident occurred are owned by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority.

SMART is scheduled to begin passenger service late next year. The agency has yet to assume responsibility for maintaining tracks north of Airport Boulevard on Santa Rosa’s northern outskirts. Elsewhere, SMART abides by all local, state and federal regulations when it comes to weed abatement, a spokesman said.

Dempel, who also owns vineyards in Mendocino County, said tests of plant materials from his Healdsburg vineyard confirm that the source of the contamination was the herbicide sprayed on the adjacent tracks. He said he paid to have the analysis done by an Oregon lab, which found both glyphosate and clopyralid on the plant material.

“It was full of it,” Dempel said.

The chemical residue was found on grapes and other plant material taken from the first vines closest to the tracks. But Dempel removed grapes on three vines along 30 rows and set them aside to be destroyed.

“We wanted to make sure we had no contaminants going into that load for sale,” he said.

Dempel said he alerted Bogle about the apparent contamination and about tests showing grapes he delivered to the winery being free of herbicides.

After filing his complaint with the county, Dempel received a letter from the Ag Commissioner’s Office warning him that he could be subjected to criminal prosecution or face civil penalties for selling produce that carries excessive pesticide residue, which also covers herbicides.

That put Dempel in the odd position of having to defend himself in a situation in which he feels he is the victim of someone else’s actions. It’s also a blow for a man who expresses pride that his vineyards are certified by Protected Harvest, a nonprofit that sets environmental standards for sustainable agricultural practices.

Dempel said he uses glyphosate in his vineyards in December for weed control. But he said that could not be the source of damage to his vines.

Linegar, the agricultural commissioner, said investigators are considering all possible sources of damage to the vines, including plant diseases or agricultural spraying. That’s while waiting for results of lab tests that could determine the outcome of the case.

Linegar said if the results of tests being conducted at a state lab confirm a match between the chemicals used for the March 24 spraying and residue found on plant materials at the vineyards in question, that would “absolutely be compelling evidence that would give us enough to take action.”

He said the civil penalties for herbicides hitting unintended targets and causing damage can be as high as $5,000 per violation. Such cases typically result in lawsuits.

Dempel said money is not the issue, however. He estimated the value of the fruit he lost to be about $1,500, and that he has spent about $5,000 so far to investigate the crop damage.

“I don’t know how they could pay for the amount of hours my wife and I have spent on this,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@ pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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