Hard to believe it’s still an issue, in the year 2002, whether cropdusters should be allowed to spray pesticides on your house. But there we were on Sunday, 50 of us in the tiny Mt. View AME Zion Church in Chatham County, recalling the “white rain” that came down on people in the Gorgas community 20 years ago and how they fought to see that it would never happen again to anybody else … and hearing that, 20 years later, the N.C. Pesticide Board is thinking of undoing the small victory they won.Chatham County Commissioner Margaret Pollard remembers coming home the afternoon of June 22, 1982, and finding people outside watching, “fascinated, but also in shock to the point of not thinking,” as a crop plane spraying nearby trees for the Boise Cascade Corp. indiscriminately sailed over their houses trailing a cloud of so-called Agent White–an herbicide containing the poison 2,4-D. Gardens died, dogs died, and the community is convinced that people who died years later from various cancers were a consequence as well.

Allen Spalt, the president of the nonprofit Agricultural Resources Center in Carrboro, says there’s no proving a link between the deaths and the sprays, and yet–“a pesticide is a poison,” he says, and it is intended to kill or control living organisms.”

Back then, Spalt joined Gorgas residents in a crusade to strengthen the state’s weak rules governing aerial spraying. They wanted bigger buffer zones around homes, schools and other buildings where spraying would be prohibited; they wanted a requirement that neighbors be notified in advance of spraying. They got neither, but they did get the Pesticide Board to establish a zero-tolerance policy: It declared that if any sprayed pesticides showed up inside the buffers (100 feet around homes, 300 feet around schools, churches and businesses), it would be considered a violation of the rule. Since the industry insisted that it was capable of pinpoint spraying, with no drift, this shouldn’t have been a problem, a rueful Spalt recalls.

But for 20 years since, he says, the sprayers “have chafed under the rule” as pinpoint control showed itself to be an illusion. So now they’ve got the Pesticide Board considering whether to relax the zero-tolerance policy. A proposal under consideration would allow up to six parts per million to be found without triggering a fine–whatever the pesticide, and no matter where it’s found or how long after the spraying took place.

Hearings are scheduled for October and November and the Ag Resources Center is gearing up to fight the battle again. Spalt expects a close vote–three of the seven Board members are openly skeptical about the proposal, and the outcome may hinge on how the representative of the state Department of Agriculture comes down on the question. For more information, call the Center at 967-1886 or e-mail PESTed@envirolink.org.