Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice

In rural Mississippi homes, schools, churches and gardens often abut or are surrounded by plantations which continue to engage in aerial spraying and ground spreading of toxic chemicals, pesticides and herbicides that leach into the land, air and water resources used by those who live or work within range of these plantations.  There is a pressing need for comprehensive plans and zoning policies that use the governmental “police power” to create reasonable safety zones around homes, schools, churches and family gardens to protect the health, safety and welfare of the children, the elderly, their families, and workers in the area.

When the industrial workers who prepare toxic agricultural chemicals for spraying or spreading on crop land are required by law and regulation to wear head to toe protective clothing when handling the product, and the boxes in which the chemicals are shipped feature the historic cross-bones or modernized warning logos to alert everyone that the contents are potentially lethal, it is disingenuous to suggest spraying and spreading creates no harm for innocent residents who live in, drive by, go to school near, worship in the midst of, or eat from the bounty of their adjacent gardens. 

This is still our reality today.  In many Delta communities the fecund rows of crop-growing plantations come within ten feet of residences, schools, churches, gardens and roadways.  In this very rural state plantations developed as the economic and social centers of small communities, which means that homes, gardens, businesses, and churches are often surrounded by vast stretches of agricultural lands. 

For the most part, however, there is little zoning at the state, county or municipal level to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people from the dangerous effects of agricultural chemicals that are sprayed or drift beyond the bounds of the plantation, or that leach underground into the water supply or the soil in which the roots of garden crops hunt for nutrients.  Whether in the heat of the spring, summer or fall when spraying is done, people keep open their windows to feel the breeze, or use air conditioning that sucks in the outside air so that families from babies to the elders are exposed to the toxic airborne mixtures.

State and federal constitutions charge governmental entities with the fundamental duty and responsibility known as the “police power”:  to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people.  The primary purpose of zoning is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people. 

Zoning laws or ordinances divide a community into districts or zones and determine which kinds of uses are permitted as a matter of right (permitted use), or may be permitted after review by a zoning board (conditional use), or is not permitted in a particular zone (prohibited use), or is permitted because it already exists as a use, but which will no longer be permitted if the use is discontinued for a designated period of time (grandfathered use).

The purpose of dividing a community into zones is to strike an appropriate balance among competing needs and interests in light of the duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of everyone.  So, for example, industrial factories are often prohibited from being located in the same zone as residential homes.  Bars, saloons, and late-night entertainment centers are often restricted from locating next to schools.  And so on.

Does zoning restrict the rights of landowners to use their land any way they see fit and in any way they want?  Yes.  That is its purpose, so long as it is appropriate and necessary and not arbitrary and capricious.

Southern Echo supports the use of zoning laws to create “environmental safety zones” around homes, gardens, schools and churches.  The “safety zone” should be a buffer space that requires that spraying and spreading not be done within a specified number of feet from the location of homes, gardens, schools and churches, taking into account aerial drift and ground leaching.  The appropriate extent of the buffer should be determined by reliable scientific research.  The goal is not to impair the economic viability of the growers, but to ensure the safety of the people who live and work in the area.

These same issues arise with the location of waste dumps, toxic and hazardous waste dumps, and construction of power plants in or adjacent to residential communities.  The purpose of zoning is to create zones that separate these kinds of uses.  Zoning laws ought to be designed so as to create the buffers that would enable the enterprises to go forward while protecting the health, safety and welfare of residents.  No zoning laws or poorly drawn zoning laws leave community residents vulnerable and unprotected.