The Kern County agricultural commissioner has imposed nearly $50,000 in fines against five companies after investigating a pesticide incident that sickened 92 farmworkers harvesting garlic on the outskirts of Bakersfield last summer.
The fines involve two separate pesticide applications: one that sickened a harvest crew and a second nearby that, although it apparently didn't affect the workers, violated state pesticide regulations.
Firefighters were summoned on Aug. 2 after garlic harvesters fell ill while working in a field near Taft Highway and Gosford Road, between Highway 99 and Interstate 5 on the city's southwestern edge.
Workers complained that their eyes were burning and itching. Some were coughing, and others said they felt nauseous and had headaches.
"I felt suffocated, dizzy, my eyes were irritated and watery," an unidentified worker told Kern County investigators. "I felt like there was chili powder in the air."
"I started to smell a chemical odor and I started to get a headache, burning eyes and started to become nauseous," another worker said in the investigation report. "I could see the entire crew that was in the garlic field was also getting sick."
"I couldn't see and couldn't breathe well. ... It felt like I had been pepper sprayed in the eyes," a third employee said.
More than a dozen of the harvest workers had to be decontaminated and several sought medical treatment.
The county's investigation found that a soil fumigant, Vapam, that had been injected hours earlier into an adjacent field seeped out of the ground and drifted.
The biggest penalty, $42,000, is against Tasteful Selections, an Arvin-based firm that grows and processes specialty potatoes. The agricultural commissioner fined the company for failing to tell the 167 workers in the area that a pesticide had been injected in soil nearby.
"It's a poor choice and probably shouldn't have been done," Glenn Fankhauser, the county agricultural commissioner, said in an interview. "This was really a bad decision."
Bob Bender, the president and general manager of Tasteful Selections, declined to comment.
The commissioner's office is citing the three farm labor contractors that employed the workers -- Ag Star Harvesting, Harvest Kings and Pacific Farm Management -- for failing to ensure the exposed harvesters got medical care.
"They each had workers that complained of symptoms and they were not immediately taken to the doctor," Fankhauser said. "Instead, they just moved them to a different area of the field."
None of the labor contractors, each facing $1,000 fines, could be reached for comment.
In the process of investigating the Tasteful Selections case, the commissioner learned that around the same time the workers were getting sick, a helicopter was spraying Vulcan, a pesticide that contains chlorpyrifos, on a nearby alfalfa field. The chemical drifted to yet another site nearby.
Several weeks ago California regulators added chlorpyrifos to the state's list of substances known to cause cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm.
Firefighters who responded to the incident that morning told the pilot who was spraying the chemical to land, according to Fankhauser.
Testing done on the clothing of the sickened farmworkers did not detect chlorpyrifos. But the county levied a $3,850 fine against the firm doing the spraying, Agra Fly, for violating several pesticide regulations. Those include spraying the chemical from the air within a quarter-mile of residences, for allowing the pesticide to drift to an adjacent field and for not filing a notice of intent with the county to use the chemical.
The commissioner also cited the pest control adviser who wrote the recommendation to conduct the aerial spraying. That man, Edgar Bolt, is facing a $250 fine, and could not be reached for comment.
The five companies and the pesticide adviser can request hearings to contest the penalties. They can appeal a ruling on that case to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.
The fines come several months after the Kern County ag commissioner issued more than $50,000 in fines against two companies, including Sun Pacific, the produce company behind the popular Cuties oranges, for violating pesticide rules in an incident that sickened 37 farmworkers near the town of Maricopa in May.
"It's rare that we have fines of this caliber," Fankhauser said. "This year we've had two, which are much higher than we normally do. That's because of the egregiousness and the multiple people that are involved."
In June the Santa Cruz County agricultural commissioner launched an investigation into several firms, including two affiliated with the Dole Food Co. and one tied to Driscoll's, in connection with a chemical release that sickened raspberry workers in Watsonville.
That same month a group of celery workers in Salinas was rushed to the hospital after becoming sick, possibly because of an insecticide, prompting an investigation by the agricultural commissioner in Monterey County.