Farmworkers head home after a day of picking at a large citrus farm in Edison, near Bakersfield. (Sean Havey/KQED)
Kern County agricultural officials have significantly reduced fines issued against two companies for a pesticide drift that sickened dozens of farmworkers south of Bakersfield in the spring of last year.
Several months after the May 5, 2017 incident near Maricopa, the agricultural commissioner's office fined Sun Pacific, the produce company behind the popular Cuties brand of mandarins and clementines, and another firm, Grapeman Farms, more than $50,000 for violating pesticide rules.
Both companies, which have operations throughout the Central Valley and Southern California, appealed the penalties, leading to hearings before an administrative officer. The hearing officer, Donald Cripe, dismissed all of the fines against Grapeman Farms in June and reduced some of the penalties against Sun Pacific two months later.
The incident sickened 37 farmworkers who were harvesting cabbage. Five people received medical care. An investigation by the Kern Agricultural Commissioner's office found that some experienced vomiting, nausea and fainting. Other symptoms included sweating, chills, shakiness, dizziness and swollen lips.
One of the workers, Vicenta Rivera, says her crew smelled a "really bad rotten gas smell" on the morning of the incident. "People started throwing up, falling down, collapsing," Rivera told KQED. "You could see people yelling, running, vomiting on themselves."
She said she's still angry about what happened. "Farmworkers are treated worse than dogs," said Rivera recently. "We're like disposable robots."
Lab tests on foliage samples from fields in the area found Vulcan, a pesticide with chlorpyrifos, and Cosavet DF, which contains sulfur. The pesticides had drifted a half-mile away, to where the cabbage harvesting employees were working.
Chlorpyrifos is a neurotoxic pesticide and causes damage to developing brains. In November, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation issued temporary guidelines, banning it from crop dusting, discontinuing its use on most crops and increasing perimeters around where it's applied.
After learning of the reduced penalties, the United Farm Workers Foundation issued a statement, denouncing the decision.
"It is disheartening that the hearing officer significantly reduced fines levied against Sun Pacific, one of the state's largest citrus growers," said Eriberto Fernandez, a research and policy coordinator at the UFW Foundation.
"By reducing the fine for multiple violations of the law... the hearing officer places the industry's interests over protecting the lives and health of farmworkers," Fernandez said.
The UFW and environmental groups are pushing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban Chlorpyrifos.
The Kern County agricultural commissioner initially fined Sun Pacific $30,250 for violating five pesticide laws. Investigators concluded that the company improperly sprayed the chemical by using a nozzle that did not meet the pesticide's label guidelines, among other violations.
Sun Pacific representatives have not responded to several requests for comment but their arguments are laid out in appeals hearing documents, which were obtained by KQED. The company argued that the label information on Vulcan's product about which nozzle setting to use was incorrect and that it was not possible for chlorpyrifos to have drifted a half-mile away, through almond orchards, to where the workers got sick.
While Cripe, the hearing officer, upheld most of the violations, he reduced one of them, that the company failed to apply the pesticide in a careful and effective manner, from five separate counts to one. That meant the fine amount was reduced to $18,250 which was paid in August, according to the commissioner's office.
The agency also initially fined Grapeman $20,000 for violating two pesticide regulations. The commissioner's office said the company applied Cosavet DF to several vineyards an hour before farmworkers complained of symptoms. The agency said Grapeman should not have sprayed pesticides amid the windy conditions at the time because the chemicals could drift to nearby fields.
Grapeman has not returned requests for comment, but like Sun Pacific, its arguments are laid out in the hearing officer's decision. The company emphasized that it complied with Cosavet's labels and that it began spraying chemicals after workers began getting sick, not before.
The hearing officer said Grapeman's arguments were persuasive and it dismissed all of the penalties against the company.
The reduced fines represent another reason why California should do away with dangerous chemicals in its agricultural industry, according to farmworker advocates.
"We feel the right result, as opposed to just imposing monetary damages on farms, is to get rid of the pesticides that we know are causing these problems in the first place," said Abre' Connor, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, which has urged state regulators to ban the use of chlorpyrifos.
The Maricopa case was one of four pesticide exposure incidents in Central California that sickened a total of 150 agricultural workers in 2017. Farmworker advocates and other groups critical of the use of pesticides pointed to the four cases in an effort to pass legislation that would have increased fines for violating California's pesticide regulations.
Amid opposition from agricultural industry groups, that bill was rejected in the state Assembly earlier this year.