Santa Cruz County Penalizes Firms in Pesticide Incident That Sickened 15 Workers

Fresh raspberries for sale at a farmers market. (Paul J. Richards/AFP-Getty Images)

The Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commissioner issued the agency's largest fine ever on Friday, penalizing two of four companies tied to a chemical drift incident that sickened 15 raspberry workers in Watsonville last June.

The commissioner, Juan Hidalgo, is fining Los Amigos Harvesting $56,000 following an investigation that found the firm violated several state agricultural regulations when it released fungicides and insecticides that drifted onto a nearby farm.

"It was really egregious," Hidalgo said in an interview. "The actions that the pesticide applicator took were really negligent."

His office is fining a second firm, FMG Farm Contractor, $1,250 for failing to seek prompt medical attention for employees exposed to the pesticides.

When firefighters arrived on scene, some of the workers were seen vomiting.  Several employees were rushed to a hospital, while others said they felt sick later in the day, Hidalgo said.

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The case was one of several incidents in which pesticides sickened Central Coast and Central Valley agricultural workers last year.

Farmworker advocates had hoped the stories of those incidents, which affected about 150 people in all, would prompt lawmakers to increase fines for violating the state's pesticide laws.

But a bill to do just that failed in the Assembly earlier this year.

The agricultural commissioner says Los Amigos applied pesticides on June 29, 2017, without a license and did not follow instructions associated with the chemicals used, among other violations.

The company sprayed four agricultural chemicals: the fungicides Pristine and Rally 40WSP; DiPel DF, an insecticide; and Widespread Max, a substance designed to improve pesticide coverage and penetration.

Farmworker advocates say some of those chemicals can interfere with reproductive and endocrine systems and can irritate skin and eyes.

Los Amigos Harvesting plans to appeal the fines and emphasized that the workers who became ill recovered quickly.

"We diligently follow all federal and state laws pertaining to the use of pesticides in farming activities," the company said in a statement. "Los Amigos Harvesting will be disputing the findings outlined in the commissioner's report. As part of the investigation process, we are requesting a hearing to review these findings further and present what we believe to be accurate information."

A representative for FMG Farm Contractor could not be reached for comment.

FMG and another company investigated in connection with the drift incident, Coastal Berry North, are tied to the Dole Food Co.

The employees who became ill were working on a field operated by Coastal Berry North. A Dole spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Los Amigos was employed by Garrett Farms, which does work for the berry distributor, Driscoll's, and owns the land where the chemicals were sprayed.

"This incident occurred in 2017 on a field of one our independent growers," Driscoll's said in a statement. "At the time of the incident, our priority and deepest concern was the well-being of the workers impacted on the neighboring farm in Watsonville. We are pleased to hear those impacted were able to return to their families and resume normal activities,"

"We understand that ultimately the accountability for protecting the safety of all workers associated with Driscoll's is ours and we are committed to doing everything we can to ensure this does not happen again. This includes fully holding our independent growers accountable for their actions," the statement said. "We are enhancing the training provided to our independent growers to reinforce our strict safety standards."

Garrett Farms was not fined. A representative for that company did not respond to a request for comment.

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