(Beyond Pesticides, February 25, 2009) After three years of legal battle, the North Carolina Pesticide Board on February 19, 2009 fined Florida-based Ag-Mart Produce Inc. a substantially lower fine of $3,000 than the originally proposed $185,000, after deciding that it can only prove six of about 200 worker safety accusations that had been levied against the company. This comes less than a month after the unprecedented ruling against Ag-Mart in New Jersey, where the company was ordered to pay penalties of more than $931,000 for misusing pesticides and jeopardizing the health and safety of workers in its New Jersey farm fields and packing houses. The Florida-based company, described as one of the biggest pesticide offenders, has been accused of routinely exposing hundreds of workers to toxic chemicals.
Investigators in North Carolina, Florida and New Jersey, the three states where the international company grows its tomatoes, scrutinized the company’s records and charged it with ignoring laws intended to keep workers safe from toxic pesticide residue. The investigators alleged workers were sent into the fields too soon after dangerous chemicals had been sprayed. The case started three years ago when some workers gave birth to babies with severe birth defects. One mother gave birth to a baby with no arms or legs.The North Carolina Pesticide Board made its decision in closed session, and its members declined to comment on their reasons for dismissing most of the violations.
During testimony, some workers, including the mother of the limbless boy, said that they were frequently exposed to pesticides. They said the sprayers often came so close to them while they were working in the fields that chemical mists landed on their skin, making them sick and giving them rashes. However, Ag-Mart attorney Mark Ash says the company is not guilty of any of the worker safety charges. The remaining charges, he said, are based on the state’s misreading of Ag-Mart’s documents.
Officials with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, which investigated Ag-Mart and brought the charges, released only a brief statement. “We’re pleased that the board agreed with the department that willful violations of the law were committed,” spokesman Brian Long said. Some of the violations listed with the fine include: spraying fields with workers present; ordering workers to reenter recently sprayed fields before the required airing out (or reentry) period had passed; failing to provide protective equipment to workers; burning used pesticide containers next to fields and workers; applying pesticides up to three times as often as allowed by law; negligently using up to 18 different chemicals on their crops; and, intentionally ignoring state regulations pertaining to pesticides because “it felt that paying fines to the State was economically less expensive.”
On January 30, 2009, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) penalized Ag-Mart almost $1 million for similar violations, citing the company with hundreds of violations also cited in North Carolina that include denying state environmental inspectors access to facilities, applying pesticides more frequently than allowed by law and failing to provide proper ventilation for chlorine vapors in the tomato packing house- an incident which affected three DEP inspectors during a site visit.
Worker advocates called Thursday’s decision a sad ending to a case they once thought would protect farm workers from dangerous conditions in the fields. Fawn Pattison, head of the anti-pesticide group Toxic Free North Carolina, said the case exposes a need for a complete overhaul of state pesticide regulations. “It is really telling that this is the state’s most egregious case in history, the biggest case they’ve ever investigated, and they’ve only been able to uphold a tiny fraction of the charges,” Ms. Pattison said. “We just don’t have the kinds of laws and regulations that let us enforce in these kinds of cases, particularly if you get some high-paid lawyers involved.”
Ag-Mart has a history of state pesticide violations and use of extremely toxic pesticides, although in 2005 the company agreed to discontinue use of chemicals linked to reproductive risks, excepting methyl bromide, which is still in use. The company grows “UglyRipe” heirloom tomatoes and Santa Sweets grape tomatoes in a chemical-intensive operation.
This case highlights the dangers farmworkers face working in fields saturated with hazardous toxic chemicals and the lack of protection and redress they face. Farmworkers and their families are the most at-risk group for exposure to a variety of toxic chemicals used in agriculture, however pesticide poisonings are drastically underreported mainly because most are migrant workers. In August 2008, in light of this case, North Carolina adopted a new law intended to protect workers from retaliation if they report pesticide violations. The new law also requires more detailed record keeping of pesticide applications.
Fortunately, the baby born without arms or legs, Carlos Candelario, won a lawsuit against Ag-mart last March and the settlement will provide for Carlos and his medical needs for the rest of his life. Studies have since been published on the plight of these workers and the impacts on their children.