By Clint Confehr

MT. PLEASANT, TN — “Serious health problems” were a “common theme” among complaints from residents of Maury and Lawrence counties when a citizens group and eastatewide organizers met here recently.

That’s according to Anna Flores of Nashville, the Middle Tennessee organizer for SOCM, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, a 50-year-old non-profit group formed in East Tennessee as Save Our Cumberland Mountains.

Nearly 30 people heard a woman’s complaint about waking up one morning bleeding from her mouth after gardening at home the night before, Flores said after SOCM’s Columbia chapter hosted public discussions in Mt. Pleasant with leaders and associates of Citizens for Clean Air, Water and Food.

Over six years, Rocky and Betsy Stone of Summertown have led the citizens’ quarterly meetings in nearby Brace Community Church. They’ve collected written complaints about what’s used to grow crops by no-till farmers; often about Paraquat, a brand of defoliant used to protect crops against weeds. It’s manufactured by Syngenta, a wholly-owned subsidiary of ChemChina.

Separately, nearly a dozen lawsuits have been filed in federal court by a Knoxville-based law firm for Lawrence County residents alleging they suffer Parkinson’s disease because of their exposure to Paraquat.

Paraquat’s use on various crops is allowed in the U.S. when used as directed by instructions on labels. Its use is outlawed in China, and countries where it’s manufactured, and several other nations.

Participating by Internet video on June 25 was long-time environmental attorney and SOCM associate Brian Paddock who says he’s not criticizing no-till farmers. But, he has a recommendation for people who’ve already complained to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture about defoliants sprayed near their homes; continue to file complaints to the state because fresh evidence is better than 5-year-old reports.

“It’s like a crime scene investigation,” Paddock said. “You want to be there while everything is fresh and new and undisturbed to do your forensic work on what actually happened in terms of a chemical being used.”

Paddock isn’t a litigator, nor does he represent people suing Syngenta.

“My role as a lawyer is to try and find a way that the government agencies (those … responsible for protecting people from these spraying overflows) will follow the rules and enforce protections that are written into the rules,” Paddock said.

SOCM organizers say that a few decades ago their predecessors’ complaints led to a requirement for a buffer zone between what’s sprayed and where people live. They complained to federal officials about crops in Madison County that were sprayed with defoliants.

Summertown-area residents’ complaints to the agriculture department were delivered by the Stones. Rocky Stone counts 156 complaints filed by e-mail; now to be delivered in person on paper.

However, Paddock says, some of those “are from … 2017 and ’18.” Current documentation is needed because people say there’s continued use and overspray on their homes near farm fields. “What I’m concerned about is the most current situation which can be accurately described so that the agency is confronted with the need to get on the spot right away and investigate these and take corrective actions.”

Members of SOCM’s Columbia chapter see environmental activist Johnny L. Farris of Columbia as a leader. He’s organized opposition to industrial pollution at Mt. Pleasant and lead in water pipes. In 2016, SOCM helped an educator win a write-in campaign to become a Maury County commissioner after she sued the school board to keep her job; alleging racial discrimination. A settlement was reached before jury deliberations. Since then, she became a SOCM treasurer.

Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical...