Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Agriculture departments, solar-powered schools, & the EPA hearing that backfired

In early fall, a Tennessee woman reported to the state that she watched a plane release a white cloud over the farm across the street from her house. A few minutes later, she said she had digestive issues. The next day, she had a bloody nose and vomited blood. She was one of at least 15 people in the rural, unincorporated central Tennessee community of Summertown who said they suffered from mysterious illnesses, dizziness, and coughing after the plane released an unknown substance on soybean and corn fields nearby. Ten animals were also reported to have died suddenly.

The Summertown residents said the substance was some sort of pesticide, but the Tennessee Department of Agriculture still hasn’t verified what it was. An agency spokesperson told reporters she had to ask the company that sprayed it, since the agency doesn’t keep information about aerial pesticides on file. The pilot of the plane denies the substance could have had that effect. A state representative is even claiming the residents “concocted” the reports.

With all of the turmoil in this country and around the world, the inner workings of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and state agriculture departments often go unnoticed. In fact, food, farming, and labor issues are usually pushed to the back burner under most circumstances. There are a multitude of reasons for this, not least of which is the massive lobbying and financial power of the agribusiness industry, which silences local farmers, farmworkers, and communities who live near industrial agriculture operations.

But the federal USDA is facing plenty of controversies. According to Politico, President Trump has appointed dozens of people who have worked with his campaign or staff to positions within the agency, even though they “demonstrated little to no experience with federal policy, let alone deep roots in agriculture.” One is reportedly a truck driver; another the owner of a scented candle company. The New York Times reported that a high-level USDA official who is a former pesticide industry executive has met with lobbyists from the pesticide industry. Trump’s nominee for a chief USDA science position, Sam Clovis, withdrew his name earlier this month amid speculation of his possible connections to the ongoing Russia probe. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue faced multiple complaints about his ethics while serving as Georgia governor.

All of this—the scandals, the vacancies, the stifling of science—has taken attention away from issues the agency is responsible for: food inspection, health and nutrition, rural development, and forest health, among other things. Many decisions are still being made while the public isn’t looking, while others have stalled. For instance, the Memphis’ Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association is trying to settle a lawsuit that alleges the USDA discriminated against minority farmers for loans in the 1980’s and 1990’s. They want to collect $1.8 billion in claims Congress already set aside, but the case keeps getting delayed. Now they’re asking Trump to take action. The USDA also just delayed a rule on healthy school lunch requirements while it reviews how necessary they are. And several times this year, departments within the agency have been accused of censoring the phrase “climate change” and stifling employees’ work.

​Things are flying under the radar at the state level, too—and not just in Tennessee. Secretary Perdue recently appointed new state directors for rural development and farm programs, and it remains to be seen what they prioritize. In Florida, the Department of Agriculture has been criticized over deadlines and public funding for food stamps post-Hurricane Irma. In North Carolina, the only USDA-approved turkey processor available to small-scale farmers shut down a month before Thanksgiving, and farmers had to scramble to find animal-welfare approved slaughterhouses. Nationwide, there are only 11 USDA-inspected small poultry processing plants.

To many, these events and scandals may seem insignificant, but they are impacting people on the ground, in both rural, farming communities and urban areas, across the South and the rest of the U.S. It takes a more concerted effort to find and follow them, or they slip through the cracks; the story of dangerous aerial pesticides in Summertown is being reported diligently by local journalists, but it was difficult to find, lost in the sea of news. That’s a shame, because it is in some ways a microcosm of what’s transpiring at the federal level, within the USDA and beyond: industries taking advantage of communities, a lack of agency transparency, attempts to discredit victims, and people in power allowing it all to happen.

Stories worth your time 

Even though both candidates were supportive of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Dominion Energy in Virginia worked with the American Gas Association to pour resources into online groups to whip up what it called a grassroots “campaign to elect a pipeline” during the state’s recent gubernatorial election. According to the Washington Post, Dominion compiled a “supporter database” of more than 23,000 names, generated 150 letters to the editor, sent more than 9,000 letters, and directed more than 11,000 calls to outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Virginian senators.

In the southeastern U.S., a meter of sea level rise could inundate thousands of archaeological sites, from Native American settlements to early European colonies, by the end of the century. Wired wrote about the complicated data that scientists had to comb through as they try to figure out how to save sites in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and the Carolinas. Hint: it’s not possible.

Poke around this interactive graphic InsideClimate News has to see how much each state has spent pumping sand onto beaches to fight sea level rise and erosion. South Carolina? $374 million. Alabama? $73 million.

Employees of the EPA (minus administrator Scott Pruitt) visited Charleston, West Virginia to host a public hearing about the Clean Power Plan. They expected most attendees to be pro-coal—and some were—but a majority of speakers made it clear they want to limit carbon emissions. The Associated Press followed one former coal miner with black lung who traveled from Eastern Kentucky for the event.

News flying under the radar 

A federal lawsuit that says Florida Power & Light violated the Clean Water Act with contaminated water discharges at its Turkey Point nuclear plant will go to trialnext year. State regulators will also soon decide if the utility’s customers will be charged the cost to clean up the pollution.
I wrote about the surge in solar-powered schools across the U.S. There are now nearly 5,500 K-12 schools using solar to generate at least some of their electricity, and they’re incorporating classes on clean energy into their curriculum.

Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy who spent a year in prison for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards after a mine explosion that killed 29 miners in 2010, is reportedly running for the Senate in West Virginia. 

One of the nation’s top credit agencies is warning coastal cities to mitigate risks of climate change, or it could hurt their credit ratings.