Cancer Clusters Spark Historic Pesticide Vote in Oregon

by: Posted on: November 03, 2014

Editor’s Note: Pesticide-induced cancer clusters have driven one Oregon county to propose a never-before-seen initiative. This November, residents of Josephine County, OR will vote to abolish corporate pesticide usage within their jurisdiction. Simon Davis-Cohen sat down with Audrey Moore, a main supporter of Josephine’s Freedom from Pesticides Bill of Rights (Measure 17-63). The ordinance would subordinate corporate legal privileges that conflict with the bill of rights and introduce legal rights for ecosystems. Continue reading for more on what drove Josephine residents to take this decisive step, the challenges local citizens  faced and the mentality moving forward.

Says Moore: “Measure 17-63 is clear however in saying that the rights of the community and the ecosystems in Josephine County will supersede those of judicially allocated powers and privileges to corporations if they are used to undermine health, safety, and welfare.”

“We’re living with known cancer clusters in Southern Oregon….We can no longer afford for our environment, our air, water, soil or our bodies to be chemically trespassed.”


Simon Davis-Cohen: What’s Josephine’s landscape like? How is the land used?

Audrey Moore: Southern Oregon is a diverse area with forests, valleys, agriculture, and three rivers: the Rogue, Applegate and the Illinois. The area is known for hiking, camping, wineries, tourism and the Oregon Caves.

SDC: There are many US localities facing chemical threats. What moved Josephine residents to wield their law making powers?

AM: A phone call that our local mill was going to spray atrazine by helicopter on 70 acres near Lake Selmac was the beginning of this journey. We began to investigate and quickly discovered Oregon’s 40-year history of chemical trespass. It is a sordid history of spraying hazardous poisons where people breathe, eat and live. After seeking help from government entities for three years—to no avail—we found CELDF (Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund). CELDF has been helping communities from Pennsylvania to New Mexico to Ohio to Oregon regain local rights and put an end to corporate harms.

And so we focused on Article I, Section I of the Oregon Constitution, which holds that if our laws stop serving the people of our state, the people have every right to change the law. We are following the lead of the Declaration of Independence.

We saw that preemptive laws like Oregon’s Right to Farm and Forest Act were never written to serve or protect the people; crafted by corporate interests, they insulate corporations from local public outcries. Measure 17-63 challenges this legal structure by elevating the right of Josephine County residents to stop toxic practices over corporate bottom lines.

SDC: As an advocate of the Josephine Freedom from Pesticides Bill of Rights, why do you think the ordinance’s passage is in the best interest of the county’s registered voters?

AM: Josephine County will be able to breathe fresh air by eliminating millions of gallons of toxic chemicals sprayed annually. There will not only be cleaner air, but our water, soil and bodies will be free from chemical trespass. No longer will our streets be sprayed with poisons, nor our parks and schools. No longer will helicopters spray the Illinois Valley or will planes douse our food supply. Josephine County will be able to set a standard for a clean, healthy and toxic-free county for the rest of Oregon and the country to follow.

SDC: The Freedom from Pesticides Bill of Rights not only bans pesticide use—it abolishes the “rights” of corporations engaged in spraying. Why take on corporate “rights”?

AM: The spraying of toxic pesticides and corporate rights are inextricably linked. You can’t ban pesticide use without also blocking the so-called “rights” of corporations from overriding community rights. Measure 17-63 doesn’t keep corporations from engaging in alternatives to pesticides or even the use of less-toxic pesticides, just those requiring an applicator license. Measure 17-63 is clear however in saying that the rights of the community and the ecosystems in Josephine County will supersede those of judicially allocated powers and privileges to corporations if they are used to undermine health, safety, and welfare.

SDC: The ordinance also calls for “changes to be made to Oregon laws and the Oregon Constitution which recognize a right for communities to adopt local laws which establish more stringent protections for their health, safety, and welfare.” Why is state-level change needed?

AM: Article I, Section I of the Oregon Constitution clearly states that laws that do not serve the people can and should be changed. Facing state preemptive laws that remove local powers and the rights of people made the rationale for this initiative all the more clear. As with the Oregon Legislature’s recent SB 863, which forbid local governments from impacting GMO cultivation, the Right to Farm and Forest Act takes away citizens’ rights regarding toxic pesticide practices. Preemptive laws serve special interests and corporations, not the people nor our local communities.

The Oregon Constitution is overripe for such an amendment: one that will make crystal clear a right to local self-government that allows for more stringent local protections for health, safety, and welfare of the people, and which trumps attempts of the state or corporate powerbrokers to subject communities and the environment to blatant assaults, as we are faced with today.

SDC: What is the significance of Josephine’s efforts within this statewide effort?

AM: All efforts are significant—each local effort opens more eyes to our current political paradigm; a paradigm where local rights are becoming ever more a thing of the past. These efforts recognize that no matter the specific local issue(s) we face or advocate for, we all keep running into the same legal structure that allows corporations together with the state to dictate what happens within our communities. We are saying enough.

SDC: Civic groups from across the state join Josephine residents in the Oregon Community Rights Network. Many of these groups’ efforts at local law making have been repeatedly stalled by the state’s “single issue” rule, which confines local initiatives to one “single issue” at a time. Courts have argued that corporate legal privileges and local concerns for health, safety and welfare are different “issues.” How did Josephine overcome this hurdle?

AM: Our measure speaks to a single issue just as the others have. The problem is not in the drafting of the initiatives but in the conditioning of the courts themselves that have been trained to uphold existing law and have a hard time understanding how perverse corporate power has become. The courts don’t get that you can’t protect local food systems from GMOs or stop pesticide use in your community without including a limit on corporate power. What we’ve learned from other Oregon counties’ efforts is that courts and some county governments have been obstructing democratic processes—not correcting an imaginary legal misstep of community rights groups.

SDC: What were other challenges in getting this ordinance on the ballot?

AM: The DA put forward an incomplete and at points false Ballot Title and Summary. The Title and Summary contains nothing about the rights that would be recognized with the passage of Measure 17-63. It also makes the voter believe that Measure 17-63 is a blanket prohibition on pesticides vs. just those requiring an applicator license. It also falsely claims how pesticides are defined, how legal action needs to be presented in relation to ecosystems and how the use of direct action would be put in motion. The misinformation machine has been out there since we started.

SDC: In hindsight, what would you have done differently?

AM: With every grass-root, volunteer-run, citizen-driven effort like this, there are things that could’ve been done differently. We will learn from this and use it for fuel for the next campaign.

SDC: For decades, conservationists and environmentalists have fought the march of toxic agriculture and industry—with regulatory law. The Freedom from Pesticides Bill of Rights abandons this regulatory paradigm and introduces one based on fundamental rights. Why make this shift?

AM: Simple: it is time. The box of political activism we’ve been confined to keeps getting smaller and smaller. We face the stark reality that environmental laws are written by industry and corporate lawyers. The very folks causing the harms set the rules for how much damage they can get away with, within our country and state. When it comes to toxic chemicals where we live and breathe, it’s do or die. We’re living with known cancer clusters in Southern Oregon, not because the state is willing to reveal the numbers, but based of the amount of people who know of folks who either have or have died from cancer in our county. Women here survive breast cancer only to face Parkinson’s—two diseases directly linked to environmental chemicals. We can no longer afford for our environment, our air, water, soil or our bodies to be chemically trespassed. These poisons are taking a toll on the health of our communities and our county. Oregon’s 40-year love affair with toxic chemicals needs to end. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired from toxic poisons. Enough is enough!


Photo: Josephine County, OR in 2000 by James Norman, Library of Congress

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Articles On Community Rights

Community Rights: