Review reveals problems protecting workers from pesticides
Wilfredo Lee ~ Associated Press
BELLE GLADE, Fla. -- Dozens of farmworkers looked up at the little yellow plane buzzing over the Florida radish field, a mist of pesticide falling from its wings.
Farmworkers are supposed to be protected by government rules regulating exposure to toxic farm chemicals. But in this case, the breeze pushed the pesticide over the crew in a neighboring field, where it fell mostly on women, including at least one who was pregnant.
"I smelled a strong odor and started feeling bad," worker Maria Garcia later told a state investigator. "I had a headache, itchy eyes and threw up."
The health investigator assigned to the case said more than a dozen workers showed symptoms of pesticide poisoning, and also found evidence the farm and crop-dusting contractor may have violated federal farmworker safety laws.
An Associated Press review of federal and state enforcement data and other records revealed the pesticide-safety system is riddled with problems: Investigations often take years to complete and result in few penalties. Written warnings are common, fines rare. Compliance is sometimes voluntary, not required. And worker anonymity can be compromised, making employees reluctant to report violations.
Wilfredo Lee ~ Associated Press
The agriculture industry defends the system, saying the low numbers are a sign farms are doing a good job of protecting workers.
President Barack Obama's administration recently adopted tougher farmworker protections after 20 years of debate and fierce resistance from the chemical and agricultural lobbies. The more stringent regulations adopt annual training requirements, safeguards to keep children workers out of the fields and stronger penalties for companies that retaliate against workers who report violations. However, when they take effect in 2017, all of the new rules still will rely on the existing enforcement system.
Adding to the troubles are the regulators themselves. In all states except California, enforcement of federal pesticide-safety laws is managed by the same agencies that promote agricultural industries.
The Florida workers fell ill Oct. 14, 2014, in Belle Glade, a farm town near Lake Okeechobee where the motto is "Her soil is her fortune." They had been moved at the last minute to a celery field owned by Duda Farms. Rains the previous night had made the fields they were supposed to plant too soggy.
That was not communicated to the crop-duster pilot, who should have waited to spray a "restricted-use" pesticide called Bathyroid XL, records show.
Bathyroid XL is listed as a probable human carcinogen, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Studies on rats showed some neurological effects, but the results of long-term exposure on people are not known. As a restricted-use agent, it is considered one of the more toxic pesticides available to American farmers.
Twelve women including Garcia and one man were hospitalized. Many were released and cleared to go back to work after a few hours. But some, including the pregnant worker, required follow-up medical screening for lingering symptoms, according to state health records about the incident.
Despite the findings about pesticide poisoning and evidence of violations, a state investigation resulted in no punishment for the farm and, after more than a year, only the small fine for the crop duster, according to the case file obtained by the AP through a public-records request. Workers contacted by the AP said they were never interviewed.
"The Florida system is terribly broken," said Greg Schell of Florida Legal Services, a national expert who has been litigating farmworker cases for decades. "Unless you see somebody being sprayed, it's your word against the employer."
Florida is the nation's second-largest agricultural state, with more than 47,000 farms. Inspectors conducted 785 worker-protection inspections in 2014, the last year for which data was available. That's more inspections than any other state in the region, yet they issued only seven fines for a total of $11,400.
The numbers are comparable in other states.
In tobacco-growing North Carolina, only three fines were levied in 2014 against farms for violating pesticide protections. In the Cotton Belt states of Georgia and Alabama, there were no fines, according to data gathered by the AP.
It's not clear how many workers get sick from pesticides each year. No one gathers comprehensive data.
A program run by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health identified 5,200 workers with acute pesticide-related illness, and eight deaths, in 11 states between 1998 and 2006. Those cases included only poisonings confirmed by doctors.
Using that data and other sources, the EPA estimates that the nation's 2 million farmworkers suffer 10,000 to 20,000 cases of doctor-diagnosed pesticide poisoning in the U.S. every year.
Low enforcement numbers also reflect workers' fear of reporting problems.
Many field hands have come to the U.S. illegally or are here on worker visas, and their immigration status is controlled by their employers.
Until a few years ago, Louisiana pesticide inspectors sometimes required farmworkers to travel hundreds of miles to Baton Rouge to lodge pesticide complaints in person. That practice was halted only after litigation and an EPA investigation that the state fought.
After the incident in Belle Glade, some of the Florida workers sprayed by the crop duster were advised by supervisors against taking legal action, according to state documents obtained by AP.
"They were told 'You would never find a job in agriculture again. Their husbands may also be fired, and it would take years to get a settlement,"' said Antonio Tovar, the Florida health department investigator on the case.
Luis Martinez, one of the workers in the fields that day, said a lawyer and the safety officer for the farm labor contractor hired by Duda Farms all discouraged him from making a complaint. The company also asked him to take a drug test to prove the symptoms he experienced were not from marijuana or other drugs.
"I feel so bad," Martinez said, "because I have no rights because I have no money and can't afford a lawyer."
Defenders of the agriculture industry say the lack of fines and violations in Florida and other places shows a high level of compliance, not lax enforcement.
"The culture has changed. There may be a few bad apples, but they are few and far between," said Gene McAvoy, who runs state pesticide safety trainings for farm supervisors in Florida.
Farm spokeswoman Donna Duda denied that anyone from the company had spoken to them. She said the company has complied with state investigators and was reviewing its policies after reading the allegations in Tovar's report that workers were pressured not to file complaints.
Jose Ojeda of Martinez & Sons Trucking, the contractor in charge of the workers that day, denied his staff discouraged workers from filing a complaint.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services never interviewed Martinez or any workers about the retaliation or intimidation claims, despite a tip from the health inspector that some workers were talking about it.
In a statement, the agency denied being told about the intimidation allegations and said it would have investigated if it had known. Officials would not answer other questions.
Other workers contacted by AP at their homes in Belle Glade did not want to be interviewed, with one saying she did not want to make trouble.
The EPA said the numbers may be low because workers are reluctant to file complaints for fear of deportation. They also say retaliation violations often are not caught during the routine, random inspections.
Nationwide, few of those violations are ever filed. Data from 2006 to 2013, the years the EPA has available, show that only 13 violations involving companies that threatened to retaliate against employees were reported nationwide -- none in any Southern states.
When workers do come forward, they face a yearslong process that often ends with nothing but a warning for the farm. In other cases, people who complain are sometimes put in professional exile.
North Carolina tobacco worker Cayetano Dominguez-Rosales complained to state investigators when 12 workers on his crew got sick in 2010 after witnessing pesticides being sprayed in a field that was no more than 40 paces away. Records show they all sat down and felt dizzy and nauseas. While heat stroke could have been to blame, it was unusual that so many workers fell ill at the same time, he said.
Dominguez-Rosales said his supervisor told him he would take him to the hospital for $20, a violation of federal law, according to state investigative documents. A clinic worker transported him and a fellow worker to the hospital five days after the incident.
After the hospital trip, he returned to work and was told to sign a "voluntary quit" paper giving up his job. He had worked for 15 years on North Carolina tobacco farms and never fallen ill, he said, but the incident left him without work. He returned to Mexico.
Nearly a year after he left, a state investigation issued a warning to the farm.
Pesticide investigations in North Carolina can take up to two years, and the vast majority nationwide end in warnings.
"A warning just says 'We're not going to hold you responsible for these actions,"' said Caitlin Ryland, an attorney at Legal Aid of North Carolina. "Really, there's no teeth at all in that law."
Delays in North Carolina investigations come largely from staffing issues, said Patrick Jones, deputy director of pesticide programs at the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The division shares one lawyer from the state attorney general's office with all other agriculture departments. Jones said a new attorney has been appointed, and pesticide cases are expected to be a top priority.
In the future, technology may offer new ways of tracking workers' potential exposure and monitoring their blood for toxins. Some ideas are being tested in California and Washington state.
"It's a problem of scope," said Dr. Thomas Arcury, director of the Center for Worker Health at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Advanced testing "is a great idea, but it would be a fairly expensive proposition, and only a handful of labs can do this with any reliability."
Associated Press video journalist Josh Replogle contributed to this report.
More to explore
Local News 6/16/19East Cape trailer park residents continue dealing with floodwatersEAST CAPE GIRARDEAU, Ill. -- Residents of the trailer park on the northeast side of East Cape Girardeau have had to find new places to lay their heads at night after last week's evacuation of the area. For Gregory Gabelman and his son, Caleb, that...
Local News 6/16/19SOS: Glenn House in need of repairsThe two-story Victorian-era Glenn House has stood tall overlooking the Mississippi River for 136 years. But as of late, its future as a museum is uncertain because of excessive water damage, overwhelming moisture levels, chipping paint, wood rot and...
Festival time in Cape: Thousands attend annual River Campus event1Parked cars lined the streets near the Southeast Missouri State University River Campus and shuttles were working overtime during this year's annual Summer Arts Festival on Saturday. Nearly all designated parking lots were full or rapidly reaching...
Business owners singing 'Gloria' after Blues' title winVirtually every sports bar in Cape Girardeau was packed Wednesday night as hockey fans watched and cheered the St. Louis Blues as they captured the Stanley Cup for the first time in the teamís 52-year history. Meanwhile, local stores selling Blues...
Like Vikings and Jedi: Missouri to allow outdoor cremations1Missouri could become the first state in the nation to legalize outdoor cremations fit for Vikings, some Native American tribes and even Jedi knights. State lawmakers passed a bill in the just-completed session to allow outdoor cremations at...
Regents approve operating budget; small raise first in two years for staff1The Southeast Missouri State University Board of Regents approved a total operating budget of nearly $174 million for the universityís upcoming fiscal year during its two-day annual retreat Thursday and Friday in St. Louis. The budget for fiscal...
Missouri to begin accepting medical-marijuana patient, caregiver applications June 282The State of Missouri will begin accepting medical-marijuana applications from patients and caregivers starting June 28, six days ahead of the July 4 deadline. Patients and caregivers must visit medicalmarijuana.mo.gov to enter information into the...
Southeast Missouri State University Spring 2019 Dean's listThe following students were named to the Southeast Missouri State University Spring 2019 dean's list. Altenburg, Missouri: Noah Franke, Linzie Weaver. Anna, Illinois: Mackenzie Boget, Jada Hudson, Madison Jacobs, Katrina Karsen, Noah Prater, Tanner...
Avenue of Flag organizer recovering from amputation; Knudtson calls for 'huge turnout' on Flag Day todayFormer Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson is calling for a "huge turnout" today for a ceremony at the Avenue of Flags at Cape Girardeau County Park North to celebrate Flag Day and remember his brother-in-law and retired Navy captain, David Cantrell,...
Ripley County Memorial Hospital will not reopen, board reportsAdd Ripley County Memorial Hospital to the growing list of more than 100 rural hospitals across the nation ceasing to exist since 2010. During a special meeting Friday, the five-member hospital board unanimously agreed to notify state authorities...
Tourism spurs growth around ONSRVAN BUREN -- A fourth generation logging family in Carter County, the Burkes decided a decade ago to add groceries to the mix. The family is now in the process of expanding their Main Street Market to a new location on Highway 60, hoping to open by...
Cape PD clarifies response in Facebook flap regarding call of suspicious activity3Cape Girardeau police first denied but later acknowledged on Facebook that a woman had reported seeing two suspicious men, who appeared to be coming after her, outside the Target store last Friday. The issue sparked controversy on Facebook, with...
Democrat Kathy Ellis to challenge U.S. Rep. Jason Smith in 8th again2Jefferson County Democrat Kathy Ellis will try again to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Jason Smith for the 8th District congressional seat in 2020. Ellis, who resides in Festus, Missouri, ran against Smith in 2018. Smith, of Salem, Missouri, won nearly...
Mother charged in daughter's death3BENTON, Mo. -- The mother of a 2-year-old girl who died Saturday, allegedly at the hands of the mother's live-in boyfriend, has been arrested and charged in connection with the child's death and injuries sustained by another of her children. Amanda...
Cape officials compromise on medical marijuana facilities4Medical-marijuana dispensaries would be allowed within 500 feet of schools, day cares and churches if Cape Girardeau's planning and zoning commission has its way. The commission, which last month recommended the council adopt a 1,000-foot buffer...
Forgotten Homeless walk set for Saturday: 'They're not homeless; they're houseless'Veterans of Foreign Wars and Auxiliary of Post 3838 and Community Partnership of Southeast Missouri are reaching "the houseless" during their first walk -- The Forgotten -- dedicated to homelessness awareness Saturday. The walk begins at 10 a.m. at...
SEMO regents to consider $174M budgetSoutheast Missouri State University's Board of Regents will consider an operating budget for the coming fiscal year when it meets today in St. Louis. The proposed budget for fiscal year 2020, which begins July 1, totals nearly $174 million, which is...
Floodwater's good for somethingLuke Bergard, 12, attaches a frog-shaped lure to his line before fishing in a flood-swollen Juden Creek on Wednesday, June 12, 2019, at near a closed portion of Hwy. 177 in Cape Girardeau. Bergard said he was fishing for gar, which he had seen in...
Scott County Route BB closed for drainage workRoute BB in Scott County, between Highway 114 and Wakefield Street, will be closed as Missouri Department of Transportation crews replace a culvert pipe beneath the roadway. A MoDOT news release says the work will take place from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m....
Red Cross shelter opens in Cape GirardeauRed Cross officials reported Wednesday six shelters have been opened across Missouri and adjoining Illinois counties in response to flooding and storm damage. The newest shelter to open is at Zion United Methodist Church, 3652 State Highway Z, Cape...
Cape Girardeau County agenda 6/13/19Cape Girardeau County Commission 9 a.m. today 1 Barton Square, Jackson Approval of minutes n Minutes for June 6 meeting Communications/reports -- other elected officials n Treasurer Roger Hudson will present purchase order for approval -- Penzel...
Local News 6/12/19Airbrush artist Malcolm McCrae imbeds history in artWith paint and an iPad at his side, entrepreneur and Milwaukee-born painter Malcolm McCrae is on the brink of creating in-depth, augmented reality projects using history as the backdrop atop his Spanish Street studio in Cape Girardeau. When he moved...
Local News 6/12/19Affidavit details sibling's explanation of how 2-year-old girl died; suspect tells different story9BENTON, Mo. -- Authorities were told multiple stories about how a 2-year-old girl died in Benton, Missouri, on Saturday. According to a probable-cause affidavit obtained by the Southeast Missourian, the man charged in connection to the girl's death,...
Most read 6/12/19Metro Business College to close barring surprise interventionBarring an eleventh hour change in plans, Metro Business College will close by the end of the year. Metro Business College has campuses in Cape Girardeau, Jefferson City and Rolla, all three of which will close according to MBC founder and president...
Photo Gallery 6/12/19Locals watch Blues claim Stanley CupAlthough more than 1,000 miles from where the game was physically played, locals gathered in Cape Girardeau to watch as the St. Louis Blues claimed their first Stanley Cup in franchise history with a 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins in Game 7. Here...
Most read 6/11/19Report: Police stop blacks more often than whites6Black residents in the Missouri locales of Cape Girardeau, Charleston and Sikeston are stopped in their vehicles by police at a higher rate than those communities' white residents, according to data released by the Missouri Attorney General's...
Most read 6/11/19Benton man charged with child's deathBENTON, Mo. -- A Scott County man is facing charges in connection with a child's death over the weekend. According to Scott County Circuit Court records, Raymond Bradley DeJournett, 25, of Benton was arrested Saturday and was charged with abuse or...
Most read 6/10/19Business Notebook: Another area casino? A passing. And a longtime Cape business movingAs the Southeast Missourian's business editor, one of the things I routinely do is scan other newspapers in the region for information about what's happening on the business horizon. One day last week, I noticed a front-page headline in The Courier...
Most read 6/8/19Mississippi crest forecast for Monday; weekend rain could alter river levelsThe National Weather Service has revised its river crest forecast for Cape Girardeau and is now calling for the Mississippi River to crest at 46 feet Monday morning. Earlier forecasts called for the river to crest Saturday morning. A 46-foot crest...
Most read 6/8/19Bear sighting in Butler Co.; know what to do if you encounter a bear1While most everyone is thinking about fishing, gardening, mowing and spring sports, there is something else you need to be aware of if you live in or near the Ozarks in Missouri, and that something is black bears. These normally secretive and docile...