Ag Industry Fights Pesticide Penalties and State Efforts to Increase Future Fines

Workers harvest tomatoes southeast of Fresno.  (Craig Miller/KQED)

Several produce and farm labor contractors are contesting fines they face in connection with two separate pesticide drifts in the Central Valley that sickened close to 130 agricultural workers last year.

In August the Kern County agricultural commissioner issued more than $50,000 in fines against two firms, 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.

Investigators determined that Vulcan, a pesticide with the chemical chlorpyrifos, had drifted a half-mile from a seedless tangerine field into an area where cabbage-harvesting employees were working.

The commissioner, Glenn Fankhauser, fined Sun Pacific more than $30,000 for violating five pesticide laws, including a violation for improperly spraying Vulcan.

Sun Pacific and the other firm penalized in the case, Grapeman Farms, which is facing $20,000 in fines, have appealed by requesting administrative hearings, according to Fankhauser.

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Neither company has responded to requests for comment.

Last month the county commissioner also imposed nearly $50,000 in fines against five other companies in connection with a separate chemical drift incident that sickened 92 garlic harvesters in Bakersfield last August.

At least two of those firms, Harvest King and Pacific Farm Management, both farm labor contractors, are challenging those fines. The fines were levied as penalties for not ensuring workers who were exposed to chemicals got medical care.

"No one that harvested garlic with us ever reported an injury or got sick or had a symptom," said Ahmed Mike Alamari, who runs Pacific Farm Management, one of the largest agricultural labor contractors in California. Pacific Farms employed about two dozen agricultural employees on scene on the day of the incident.

Another farm labor contractor penalized in the August drift, Agstar, has paid its fine, said Fankhauser in an email.

The largest penalty in that case was against Tasteful Selections, an Arvin-based firm that grows and processes potatoes. That company is reviewing the case to determine whether it wants to appeal the fine.

Another firm, Agra Fly, which sprays chemicals on farm land, has yet to pay its fine in connection with the incident.

The penalties come as the agricultural industry fights efforts at the state level to increase fine amounts for serious violations of California's pesticide laws.

Currently, the maximum fine for violating the state's pesticide regulations is $5,000. Earlier this month the State Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials voted 5-0 to increase that limit to $25,000 under a bill authored by Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward.

"Show us the money. Where are the violations that would say we need to go from $5,000 to $25,000 per violation?" asked Cynthia Cory, director of environmental affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation, during the committee's hearing on the proposal.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation, which sponsored the bill, emphasizes that the higher fines would be for only the most egregious cases, like when workers become sick.

Other agricultural industry groups, including the Western Growers Association and the Western Plant Health Association, which represents fertilizer and crop protection manufacturers, also oppose the bill.

Farmworker advocates have pushed for the legislation, pointing to concerns from the two Kern County drifts, as well as incidents in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties last year that sickened dozens of other agricultural employees.

The state Assembly Appropriations Committee approved the legislation last Thursday. The bill now heads to the full Assembly.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story stated that the company, Agra Fly, had paid a fine in connection with a drift incident in Kern County in August. A pest control adviser for the firm, not the company itself, paid a fine. 

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