Lessons from the Herbicide Wars

Caroline Griffith, NEC Executive Director

On October 25, in response to massive public outcry due to PG&E’s proposal to spray herbicides along its rights-of-way, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in opposition to spraying herbicides at any time on County property or on private lands without the express permission of the landowner. After PG&E announced the plan to spray, we received numerous phone calls and emails at the NEC asking when the County would outright ban the use of herbicides and why it hadn’t done so already. To answer that question we have to look to the herbicide wars of the 70s and past efforts to regulate what the State calls “economic poisons.”

Pesticide is a blanket term to describe numerous -cides, the compounds used to kill various targets; herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, and insecticides all fall under the category of “pesticide.” The EPA defines it as “any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest.” The Humboldt County resolution is specific to herbicides, which PG&E planned to use for what it calls “vegetation management,” jargon that means eliminating plants along its power lines.

The resolution states the County’s opposition to the use of herbicides on private property without the express written consent of landowners; opposition to the use of herbicides on county-owned land and right-of-ways unless no other feasible alternative exists, but most importantly directs staff to develop an ordinance that states this. This last point is important because a resolution is not a binding law; it is a statement of the opinion of a governing body which might change when a new board is sworn in. An ordinance, however, creates a binding law, which is what the public and local environmental groups are demanding to codify a policy that Humboldt County has informally been following since 1987, when it stopped using herbicides on County right-of-ways. While the Board of Supervisors is able to regulate pesticide use on County property, its ability to regulate it on private property is restricted by state law.

The fight against pesticides has been ongoing in Northern California since the 70s. Anti-herbicide group Safe Alternative for Our Forest Environment (SAFE) was formed in 1979 in response to massive helicopter spraying of herbicides on public and private timberlands in Trinity County. One motivating factor in the formation of SAFE was an incident in which a group of pregnant women from the small town of Denny suffered miscarriages—including one molar pregnancy—and a pesticide related cancer, as well as some livestock deaths after being exposed to phenoxy herbicides sprayed by the U.S. Forest Service. Both public agencies, like the Forest Service, and private companies would aerially spray herbicides after clearcutting to keep the non-commercial plants and trees from growing back. This practice, which is the subject of the recent novel Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson, was particularly devastating to Indigenous communities which were surrounded by timberland.

In response to the aerial spraying of herbicides, both Trinity and Mendocino Counties enacted pesticide regulations; Trinity County’s came through the Board of Supervisors in the form of an ordinance while the Mendocino County regulations were passed through the citizen initiative process. The Mendocino regulation was challenged in court by the then CA State Attorney General (Deukmejian v. County of Mendocino, 1984), though it was upheld by the state Supreme Court on appeal. After the appeal, the California legislature quickly met and, under pressure from agribusiness near the end of that legislative session, took a bill ready for passage, gutted it, and inserted a bill which amended the California Food and Agricultural Code to state, “no ordinance or regulation of local government, including, but not limited to, an action by a local governmental agency or department, a county board of supervisors or a city council, or a local regulation adopted by the use of an initiative measure, may prohibit or in any way attempt to regulate any matter relating to the registration, sale, transportation, or use of pesticides, and any of these ordinances, laws, or regulations are void and of no force or effect.” This nullified the ordinances from Trinity and Mendocino Counties and made it so no other county or municipality could directly regulate pesticides.

Although the State of California had been regulating pesticides since 1901, the main goal of the Economic Poisons Act of 1921 and subsequent amendments to it was to discourage fraud and the sale of ineffective pesticides; protecting people and the environment from harm was secondary. Then, as today, the companies manufacturing pesticides claimed that they were perfectly harmless, as long as “used as directed,” and it seemed there was little recourse for those who were harmed by them, particularly workers and people of color. In the May 1988 issue of EcoNews there is a short article entitled “Who Killed the Migrants” which states, “Congressional oversight hearings on OSHA last month revealed that failure of the government to enforce its own regulations has caused hundreds of migrant farmworkers to suffer death, disease and toxic contamination.” Big Ag had helped to craft a law that allowed it to keep using “economic poisons” and the laws meant to protect workers from harm were not enforced. 

Luckily, the course that Trinity County took after the State preempted its attempt to regulate pesticides could give some insight into how Humboldt County, and others, could do the same. 

In 1985 the Trinity County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance which established a “no detectable discharge” policy and made it a misdemeanor to put any detectable level of any polluting substance into Trinity County waters, except native soil, because the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act – also known as the California Water Code – allows counties to pass more restrictive laws than those that exist at the state level to protect local waters. Then, in 1987, the Trinity County Supervisors passed a resolution declaring herbicides a public nuisance. This allows agencies or entities to be sued for violating a legally established public nuisance, which herbicide spraying was officially declared to be. It also showed that Trinity County and its citizens were serious about pesticides and led to voluntary agreements with other government agencies to stop using pesticides in the county. Many of those agreements and the nuisance ordinance remain to this day.

The resolution passed by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors did not put a timeline on when it needed to come back with an ordinance, but many groups and activists throughout the County will be watching and waiting, so stay tuned, and let your Supervisor know that this is important to you.