An Urgent Plea: Retired Oregon Logger Wants Legislature to Protect Others from Diesel Exhaust

Guest blog by Steve Person

Steve Person pictured here with his friend and former work partner, Jim Serrill.

I lived in Oregon for a great part of my life, and for five years of my time here, I worked in the timber industry. I was part of a crew that trimmed trees to make sure they didn’t damage power lines. Our trucks ran on diesel, as did our equipment. Day in and day out, we’d breathe in the exhaust — both from the machines we used and from our trucks, which had to run constantly to power our equipment.

I always knew this work presented its physical dangers, but I never imagined it would lead to anything like what my life is like now. I only thought about in-the-moment risks, like falling or getting an injury from using the equipment. I didn’t think about being sick for the rest of my life.

In 2010 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I remember doctors asking me if my family had a history of prostate cancer. We did not. They asked many questions to try and find some sort of genetic explanation for why this had happened. It was odd to be diagnosed with such an aggressive form of prostate cancer, as I has been. I thought there may be a connection between my cancer and diesel exposure, as I was diagnosed with the same type of my cancer that my work partner had been diagnosed with. But what solidified the connection between the two was when I saw even more men from my work crew fall ill. Some of them are now gone.

In many ways, the cure is worse than the sickness. The 39 radiation treatments I received caused severe scarring and bleeding. They had a hard time knowing exactly where to radiate, so each time I went in for a treatment, I had to get an x-ray first. I’m not sure that I ever went into remission; the treatment stopped, but I stayed sick. It was never clear to me whether that was the cancer, or the after effects of the treatment lingering on. A few years later, I was told my cancer had spread. It’s in my lungs and bones now. I have had pneumonia twice and honestly, I’m not sure I’ll make it if I get it again. My energy level is very low. I went out for just two hours today and that really took it out of me.

The impacts of my cancer diagnosis go beyond just the physical. It’s hard watching friends die. My wife left me. There is an emotional and spiritual toll that comes with living in chronic pain. This experience has made me realize both my strength and fragility; I live each day with a complete awareness of my physical limitations, while also seeing that I am stronger as a person than I ever thought possible. This journey has been hard, but it has not broken me. My life is still good. I’m great friends with my neighbor; he looks out for me. I have a brother in Bakersfield who visits me often. Jim calls and checks in on me. I have good people in my life.

So what’s next for me? Well, my brother is going to take me on a “bucket list” trip soon; we’re going to see the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I’ve read about this restaurant that you can only access by gondola. Supposedly they make great crepes. I’m excited to try one. I can’t imagine anything better than taking in a mountain sunset while eating crepes.

If I could tell the Oregon Legislature anything, I’d want them to know that it’s too late for me, but there’s still time to protect others. I’d tell them that I had supervisors for years who never once told me to wear a mask or be careful of exhaust; the emphasis was solely on getting the job done. I’d tell them that we can’t depend on companies to do the right thing without being mandated, legally, to do it. I’d tell them that this is a problem we can fix and one that we must. I’m not well enough to go to Salem to tell them myself, so I’m telling it here, in the hopes they’ll listen. My bucket list isn’t that big or fancy. But if I could take in that mountain sunset, while also knowing my story made a difference…well, that’d be a pretty great thing to check off.

Steve isn’t the only logger speaking out about diesel exposure. Check out Jim Serrill’s story here. 

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