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Daily News Blog

31
Mar

Terminix To Pay $10 Million Criminal Fine for Poisoning Family in Virgin Islands

(Beyond Pesticides, March 31, 2016) On Tuesday, Terminix International LP and its U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) operation agreed to a $10 million plea agreement after being  charged by the U.S. Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  in U.S. District Court with multiple violations of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) for “illegally applying fumigants containing methyl bromide in multiple residential locations in the U.S. Virgin Islands.” This decision by Terminix to pay criminal fines comes just one year after a Delaware family of four was poisoned with the neurotoxic pesticide at a resort in St. John, resulting in hospitalization and serious injury. The agreement, which is still subject to District Court approval, requires Terminix USVI to pay $6 million in fines and restitution to EPA for response and clean-up costs, and Terminix LP to pay $3 million in fines and fund a $1 million community service project, and a probation period of three years. In addition, Terminix LP is also responsible for resolving past and future medical expenses for the family through separate civil proceedings.

2009-02-20_Terminix_truck_on_Geer_St_in_DurhamLast March, a family from Delaware was vacationing at a  luxury condo in the U.S. Virgin Islands when they were exposed to methyl bromide, a neurotoxic pesticide. According to authorities, the pesticide gas drifted from a neighboring condo into the family’s home, sending the two teenage boys and their parents to the hospital. Judith Enck, EPA’s region  2 (which included USVI)  administrator in New York City said, “So far, the investigation has revealed a certified applicator working for Memphis, Tennessee-based Terminix applied the methyl bromide in the complex while targeting an indoor beetle that consumes wood.” Methyl bromide is a restricted use pesticide and is  not registered for residential use, according to EPA’s 2013 Methyl Bromide Preliminary Workplan (pg. 6). Although mostly banned in the U.S., it can still be used in certain agricultural and food storage sites under a controversial “critical use exemption” loophole in the Clean Air Act and international agreement, the  Montreal Protocol, which requires a State Department petition.

The plea agreement sheds light on the detailed facts of the case. According to the Department of Justice:

“TERMINIX, USVI provided pest control services in the Virgin Islands including fumigation treatments for Powder Post Beetles, a common problem in the islands.   These fumigation treatments were referred to as “tape and seal” jobs, meaning that the affected area was to be sealed off from the rest of the structure with plastic sheeting and tape prior to the introduction of the fumigant.  Customers were generally told that after a treatment persons could not enter the building for a two to three-day period.”

Since the incident, EPA has been investigating the ongoing  uses of methyl bromide in the Virgin Islands. In response, Terminix voluntarily stopped using methyl bromide in the U.S. and territories. “This prosecution demonstrates the importance of complying with environmental laws and regulations,” said U.S. Attorney Ronald W. Sharpe of the District of the Virgin Islands.   “Tragically, the defendants’ failure to do so resulted in catastrophic injuries to the victims and exposed many others to similar harm.  The United States Attorney’s Office is committed to the enforcement of environmental laws and will take all necessary steps to hold those who violate these laws criminally accountable and to protect residents and visitors of the Virgin Islands.”

Because methyl bromide is an ozone-depleting substance, its production is controlled under both the  Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances, which is legally binding on all signatories to the treaty, of which the United States is one, and the  Clean Air Act. These laws mandated methyl bromide’s  phase out, in accordance with  a  precise schedule, by January 1, 2005. However, due to the “critical use exemption” (CUE) loophole, which allows the chemical to  continue to be used  if users petition that there are “no feasible alternatives.” As a result of uses under CUEs, application rates of methyl bromide in the U.S. have remained persistently high.

In November, the Virgin Islands revamped its pesticide enforcement and applicator training  on alternatives, which advocates say are too focused on alternative pesticides, rather than building management strategies that eliminate pest-conducive conditions.  In St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR) and the EPA held a joint conference on “Reducing Pesticides in the U.S. Virgin Islands.” As a result of discussions that took place between the more than 100 participants, DPNR has announced plans to promote natural alternatives to toxic pesticides and to draft new applications for commercial and purchase permits related to pesticide application in an effort to increase protections for residents and vacationers from pesticide poisoning. According to Judith Enck, the full day conference was the first of its kind to take place in the Virgin Islands.

For the management of structures and buildings, Beyond Pesticides advocates the use of defined  integrated pest management (IPM)  as  a vital tool that aids in the adoption  of non-toxic methods to control pests and facilitates the transition toward a pesticide-free (and healthier) world. It offers the opportunity to eliminate toxic pesticide use through the management of conditions that are attractive to pests and exclusion techniques that through sealing keep pests out of structures, while only using least-toxic chemicals as a last resort. Sanitation, structural repairs, mechanical and biological control, population monitoring are a part of a defined  IPM strategy to prevent and manage  pests.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice

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