Thursday, October 13, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXXIX): Organic farmer sues utility over herbicide use

The pesticide drift cases most of us hear about in California involve conflicts in which farmers are the ones using the pesticides while neighbors are the ones complaining. But farmers are not always the bad guys (a/k/a defendants) in these cases. Sometimes they are the plaintiffs.

I've been aware for several years of some Newton County, Arkansas residents' agitation about the local electrical utility's widespread use of herbicides on their powerline right-of-ways, even when those who own the property have asked that the spraying not occur. Some of the landowners who have fought with the utility, Carroll Electric Co-operative, to prevent their property from being sprayed have more at stake than their own health and sensibilities. Some of them are farmers whose produce is certified organic. Now, two of these property owners have initiated a complaint against Carroll Electric.

The July 27, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times reports that one Carroll County landowner and one Newton County landowner filed a complaint, on behalf of all Carroll Electric Co-operative Members, with the Arkansas Public Service Commission. The named complainant from Newton County is Gordon Watkins, who owns Rivendell Gardens near Parthenon. (Photo above). The complaint asks the PSC to order the cooperative to:
  • Stop using herbicides on members' land without prior permission. This is the issue that first brought together a group of co-op members three years ago.
  • Declare their rights to open meetings and free access to the co-operative's financial operational and managerial information and membership lists. This relates to the efforts of Marci Brewster, a Newton County resident, to run for a position on the Co-op's Board of Directors. Brewster was not allowed to learn the names of members in her district and therefore failed by eight signatures to get a spot on the ballot for the Board election.
  • Provide members with full information on their capital credits and repay members on a reasonable and systematic basis. The complaint says the co-op has been "systematically concealing" the amount of patronage capital that the co-operative owes its members.
The complainants' legal team includes Bill Ikard, an Austin, Texas, lawyer who won a similar case against Pedernales Electric Co-op in Austin, Texas. The complainants sent an email to "concerned Carroll electric members and supporters" in July asking for assistance in raising $50,000 to cover legal expenses. Each of the two named complainants has already committed $5,000 to the effort.

Progress in the case can be followed on the PSC website. As of October 7, each of the parties plus the PSC had filed its initial legal brief. The matter's docket number is 11-077-C.

As a related matter, a film about herbicide abuse was shown in neighboring Harrison, Arkansas on July 8. The film, "The Natural State of America," was made by Dr. Brian C. Campbell, an agricultural anthropologist at the University of Central Arkansas, in collaboration with Duck-A-Duck Production. A story in the July 13, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times states that the film is about "a four decade struggle to prevent unnecessary herbicide use in the beautiful and biodiverse Arkansas Ozarks. The U.S. Forest Service has sprayed herbicides in the Ozark National Forest for years for their vegetative management." The story continues, apparently quoting the film's description by those who made it:
The film follows concerned residents, environmental activists, and organic farmers. Many of the anti-herbicide advocates are from Newton County, which is known for its pristine nature. There are no stoplights or railroads to be found in the entire county. The residents there are closer to nature, to say the least.
One woman who attended the film's screening in Harrison was Kathy Turner of Huntsville. She reports that she lost her organic farming certification for three years on a large area of her farm due to accidental herbicide spraying by a contractor hired by Carroll Electric. Another in attendance referred to what the cooperative is doing as both criminal trespass and chemical trespass. "The film documents members attending the cooperative's annual meetings, where they were not allowed to speak." This early July story notes that "efforts to seek arbitration between Carroll Electric Co-operative's members and the Arkansas Public Service Commission have failed as the PSC has refused to play that role."

I'll be keeping an eye on how this grass roots effort to corral Carroll Electric and its use of herbicides progresses in the coming months.  Above photo of a sign in Fair Play, El Dorado County, California.

1 comment:

Courtney Taylor said...

Apparently, Carroll Electric contracts with a company called Progressive Solutions. The contractor then applies the herbicide Accord XRT that consists mostly of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup, a common herbicide patented by Monsanto). The US EPA has stated that glyphosate may have adverse effects on endangered species, making this a biodiversity issue as well as an issue for organic farmers.