HUNTSVILLE--The Carroll Electric Cooperative Corp. (CECC) annual meeting in Huntsville this past Thursday morning started with a prayer in the name of Jesus. Later a member selected in a lottery to be allowed a two-minute comment referred to that prayer saying that forcing people who believe in organic to have herbicides sprayed on their land for electric right-of-way maintenance is akin to forcing a Christian to become a Buddhist.
"We have been organic our entire life," said Curly Miller, who with his wife, Carole Anne Rose, runs a large organic farm, Sweden Creek Farm, near Kingston. "That is our belief system. To force someone like us to have herbicides sprayed on our farm would be like making someone who is Christian become a Buddhist. This is a belief system for us. We have lived this way our whole life."
This past year a spray crew from CECC contractor Progressive Solutions, which uses Brazilian laborers to apply herbicides, was lost and preparing to spray. Miller said if they hadn't stopped the crew, Sweden Creek Farm would have suffered the same fate as a farm owned by Kathy Turner of Madison County, who lost organic certification after being sprayed.
"We have probably more liability issues than anyone," Miller said. "We are a very large farm. We harvest 1,300 pounds of shiitake mushrooms every week, 52 weeks a year. If we hadn't been able to stop your spray crew, we would now be in a huge lawsuit with you guys."
Miller said he is 50 pounds lighter than normal and on chemotherapy to treat a second occurrence of cancer. He said CECC's new procedure for opting out of herbicide spraying is unfair because it would waive legal rights if property owners are sprayed either accidentally or intentionally.
"It would endanger our entire livelihood if we sign," Miller said.
Turner, who was also selected in the lottery to be able to speak, said no one with CECC will take responsibility for her economic losses from being accidentally sprayed by Progressive Solutions this past year. Turner, a coop member for 30 years, lost her organic certification and can't get it back for three years.
"Now, in the next season I have to sign a contract asking you to not spray, and if you come in and accidentally spray, I have no recourse," Turner said. "You won't be held liable if you accidentally spray."
A year ago members weren't allowed to speak at the annual meeting, but this year CECC allowed members who wanted to speak to fill out a card. The cards were placed in a tumbler, with members selected by lottery to be given the opportunity to speak two minutes each for a total of 20 minutes. But comments from members almost didn't happen at all.
Early in the meeting when CECC spokeswoman Nancy Plagge was trying to speak, she was interrupted by several members in the audience who introduced and seconded a motion for CECC to stop using herbicides. Plagge said the members were out of order, but some continued to interrupt.
"This cooperative has made it impossible for members to speak to the board," said Randy Janowitz of Jasper. "The requirements for members to nominate board members are absolutely ridiculous."
"This is not the time for members to speak," Plagge said. "Kindly sit down."
Several outbursts were greeted by loud applause: "There is no democracy in this coop." "We need democracy in our coop." "No herbicides."
Following the meeting Janowitz said members spoke out of frustration. "We were out of order, but the board is not operating democratically," he said. "So there is no way for us to be in order and have our concerns addressed."
CECC members protest that the CECC can change bylaws at any time, and has changed bylaws to require more than 600 signatures to nominate someone to run for the board. As a result, CECC board candidates recommended by a nominating committee made up of board members and CE employees run unopposed. Janowitz said they have also changed the bylaws to make it impossible for members to put a petition on the annual ballot.
CECC has said herbicide applications are safe, and could potentially save up to $70 million dollars over the next 30 years. Members opposed to herbicide use say those savings come at a high cost to the environment and human health as herbicides used in the karst terrain easily end up in the water. The herbicide opponents have also said CECC employees are paid far higher than average salaries, with CEO Rob Boaz' annual compensation at about $320,000.
Opponents said the questionnaire was "rigged" as it asked members if they wanted to pay extra for CECC to do more than what is required by law to protect the environment.
Boaz said CECC would honor do not spray contracts and that "only a handful of members have offered comments on herbicide management. We have taken your comments very much to heart."
But those who won the lottery to speak weren't impressed. Harrison Miner said it isn't worth widespread birth defects and cancer for saving a little money with chemical herbicides instead of manual clearing.
Pat Costner, a retired senior scientist with Greenpeace, said that CECC is "positively anti democratic." She said CECC has control over more land than any other entity in Northwest Arkansas.
"You control what happens on something like 40,000 acres," Costner said. "That is an enormous amount of herbicides in an almost entirely karst terrain where the groundwater is known to be extremely vulnerable to contamination."
One of the herbicides CECC uses has been shown to cause cancer and birth defects, said Homer Lyle, who got the loudest applause of those speaking during public comments after he said, " It isn't a matter of money. It is a matter of lives."
During the public comment period, Beth Ardapple said she represented a number of people who wanted to be there but had to work. She said there are valid concerns about herbicide spraying and that a clean, healthy environment, alternative energy and democracy are important to our future.
Sherilyn Stalling, who has done intensive study and YouTube videos on the impacts of pesticides on bees, said CECC should be aware of the impact of herbicides on newborns.
"Where did you get the safety studies?" she asked. "I can't find them."
Herbicides and habitat destruction are causing a worldwide crisis for amphibians, many of which are becoming endangered, said Kim Jones, who also referred to recent news reports linking pesticides (herbicides are the most common type of pesticide used in the U.S.) and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in children.
"Children are drinking water contaminated by herbicides," Jones said. "We are paying horrible price. Let's not make any assumption these herbicides are safe."
Dennis Larson said he could have used the entire 20 minutes himself to discuss the problems with herbicide use.
Carole Anne Rose, a certified organic farmer, said herbicides are pulled off market year after year because of problems. "Only a few hundred out of 80,000 chemicals tested for safety," she said.
Another organic farmer, Gordon Watkins, said CECC's practices put his livelihood at risk. And yet another organic farmer, Dane Schumacher, said she has been stonewalled when requesting information about how decisions were made to use herbicides.
"Don't rubber stamp Mr. Boaz," Schumacher said. "I want to see how you make decisions to allow these pesticides to be used. I want to see you have looked at this scientifically. I want to see numbers in terms of cost savings. I really want to work with you people. I have good faith in Carroll Electric. But I'm not going to stop and I will continue to hold this board accountable."
When CECC closed public comments, the audience loudly yelled "No!" Members made a motion to continue the public comments that was refused, but people began to talk anyhow.
"You want electricity at the lowest price, but what is the lowest possible cost for our health?" asked Kit Sheppard. "If this way of producing cheap electricity costs us our health, it is way too expensive."
"This would never pass in a third world country," Janowitz said.
"It's a sham!" said Shawn Porter.
Some members went up to try to talk to board members while CECC attempted to show a video highlighting the work of CECC employees. The board members walked out before the film ended, and entered a board meeting closed to members. The only meeting of the year members are allowed to attend is the annual meeting. Regular monthly board meetings are closed sessions.
One woman, Holly Krepps of Newton County, wasn't allowed in because their electrical bill is in the husband's name. Standing out in the heat, Krepps said she was disappointed, confused and frustrated.
"Moving here from Little Rock, I feel like I've stepped into the dark ages," Krepps said. "I'm not clear how my marital status is not being recognized. I pay all the bills. I had a receipt for my Carroll Electric account in my billfold. My husband's last name is the same as mine. We are both equally liable for paying debts. As much as I like the area, running into situations like this that are a brick wall are very disappointing."
Near the end of the meeting some people who weren't allowed in snuck into the meeting. One of the woman shouted, "You are poisoning us. You are poisoning the Buffalo National River". She dodged away as CECC employee tried to get her to leave. Others also came in from outside and refused to leave despite polite pleadings from CECC staff.
Plagge said after the meeting that 59 members attended. She wasn't sure how many signed up to speak who weren't given that opportunity.
She said the bylaws of CECC prevent motions from the floor during an annual meeting, but that she was not upset by the behavior of the members who spoke anyhow.
"It was okay," she said. "I understand their passion."
Plagge said that do not spray requests will be honored, but must be submitted before June 30.
"We intend to honor each request," she said. "It is a simple thing to do, and now there is a deadline."
Herbicide opponents are recommending people sign the contract and either strike out the no liability language, or sign the contract stating it is under duress or under protest, and attaching a statement about why the contract is unfair.
Plagge said the Brazilian workers who apply the herbicides are trained in proper spraying techniques in their native Portuguese language, and are here legally in the U.S. on Visas. She said there is always an English-speaking supervisor on the crews.
Carroll Electric is the largest electric cooperative in Arkansas with about 69,000 customers, including some in southern Missouri. The coop says its rates are about 26 percent below the national average, which reflects the fiscal responsibility of the coop.