Friday, February 20, 2009

Ag-Mart receives a slap on the wrist in worker endangerment case

The North Carolina Pesticide Board has completed their deliberation on the case against Ag-Mart, the tomato company accused of the largest pesticide violations case in state history.

More than 200 charges of worker endangerment were at issue in the case. On Thursday, 2/19, The Pesticide Board found Ag-Mart guilty of just six charges of sending workers back into fields before the “re-entry interval” (REI) had expired, for a total fine of just $3,000. The hundreds of charges originally filed against Ag-Mart first came to light in 2005 when three babies with severe birth defects were born to Ag-Mart workers who worked in tomato fields in North Carolina and Florida during their pregnancies.

Get the full details from the Raleigh News & Observer's article.

The $3,000 fine highlights just how low the penalties are for cases of worker endangerment, and how difficult such charges are to prove. The state does not require pesticide applicators to keep records of compliance with the re-entry intervals that are designed to protect workers from hazardous pesticide residues in the field. Without these records, there was no documentation to corroborate the charges brought by state investigators resulting from Ag-Mart’s spray tickets and worker testimony.

The Pesticide Board’s judgment underscores two very serious shortcomings in North Carolina’s pesticide laws and regulations:

  1. At just $500 per violation, fines for companies who violate the state’s pesticide regulations are far too low. In a case where workers were put directly in harm’s way, a $3,000 total fine is a pittance, and a shameful conclusion to a case with such serious consequences.
  2. North Carolina needs a robust record-keeping requirement in order to be able to enforce its worker protection standards. Without clear records, it is next to impossible to know whether or not growers comply with the law.
Unless the NC General Assembly and the NC Pesticide Board correct these critical problems, bad actors have no incentive to comply with North Carolina’s pesticide laws and regulations that are intended to protect workers and the public. Ag-Mart has shown just how flimsy those laws can be.

Toxic Free NC will be fighting hard this year, together with our allies in the Farmworker Advocacy Network, to win this campaign so that another Ag-Mart case will never be repeated in North Carolina. Donate now to support this fight.

More background

In 2008 the NC Pesticide Board found Ag-Mart in violation of 42 counts of improper pesticide use, such as improperly mixing pesticides, and using pesticides that were not labeled for use in North Carolina. The Board fined Ag-Mart $21,000 for those violations, and revoked the farm manager’s pesticide license as a result.

Ag-Mart is also facing close to a million dollars in fines for hundreds of new charges of pesticide misuse and worker endangerment in New Jersey. In addition, the company has already paid out a civil settlement to workers who contend that pesticide misuse led to the severe birth defects in their son, who was born with no arms or legs after both his parents worked in Ag-Mart fields in North Carolina. The amount of the settlement is undisclosed, but it is believed to be in the millions.

by Fawn Pattison

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