Carroll Electric meeting draws protesters

Friday, June 4, 2010
Some of the opponents of Carroll Electric's herbicide spraying program were not allowed inside the meeting because they weren't members (above). Carroll Electric CEO Rob Boaz speaks to a crowd at the annual electric co-op meeting in Huntsville (below). Photos by Susie Ensslin

HUNTSVILLE -- The Carroll Electric Cooperative Corp. annual meeting in Huntsville on May 29 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 farming 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 Carroll Electric 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 Carroll Electric's new procedure for opting out of herbicide spraying is unfair because it forces property owners to waive legal rights if their properties 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 Carroll Electric will take responsibility for her economic losses after her property was accidentally sprayed by Progressive Solutions this past year. Turner, a co-op 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 Carroll Electric 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 Carroll Electric spokeswoman Nancy Plagge was trying to speak, she was interrupted by several members in the audience who introduced and seconded a motion for the company 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 co-op." "We need democracy in our co-op." "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."

Carroll Electric members protest that the company 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, board candidates recommended by a nominating committee made up of board members and Carroll Electric 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.

The company 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.

When Rob Boaz, the company's chief executive officer, stood up to speak, he said if members interrupted him, they would be removed and he would not allow a public comment period. He was allowed to speak uninterrupted.

Boaz talked about the results of a survey that showed co-op members have the following as priorities: First is low cost, second is reliability of service, third is disaster response, fourth is energy efficiency, fifth is public safety, and sixth is environmental policy.

Opponents said the questionnaire was "rigged" as it asked members if they wanted to pay extra for the company to do more than what is required by law to protect the environment.

Boaz said the company 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 to save a little money with chemical herbicides instead of manual clearing.

Pat Costner, a retired senior scientist with Greenpeace, said the company is "positively anti- democratic." She said Carroll Electric 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 the company uses has been shown to cause cancer and birth defects, said Homer Lyle.

"It isn't a matter of money. It is a matter of lives," said Lyle during the public comments portion of the meeting.

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