Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ag-Mart: The end of a long, sad story

A long, disappointing episode came to a close today as the NC Pesticide Board accepted a final settlement agreement in the Ag-Mart case that has dragged on for more than five years. In 2005 the state found hundreds of pesticide safety violations in what would become the Department of Agriculture’s largest enforcement case ever.

Three families alleged that their children’s birth defects were related to pesticide exposure that pregnant workers experienced while working for Ag-Mart on tomato farms in Florida and North Carolina. One of the children died, and another, Carlitos (pictured at right), became a symbol of this case through stirring photography and reporting in the Raleigh News & Observer and Palm Beach Post. An investigation by the NC Division of Public Health could not prove whether the pesticide exposures to pregnant workers caused the birth defects, but found that they were almost certainly a contributing factor.

Today’s settlement covered six points. The state’s attorney provided an overview based on what the state gets out of the agreement, and what Ag-Mart gets. What the state gets:

  • Ag-Mart agrees to dismiss their appeal of the Pesticide Board’s ruling against them.
  • Ag-Mart will pay a $25,000 settlement – that’s $24,000 for this case, and another $1,000 to settle a separate case of pesticide misuse from 2006 that was never heard by the Pesticide Board.
  • Ag-Mart will conduct a pesticide education program for North Carolina farmworkers during the 2011 and 2012 growing season.

What Ag-Mart gets:

  • The Pesticide Board will make a public statement to the effect that there have been no pesticide violations found on Ag-Mart’s North Carolina farms since 2006, and that Jeffrey Oxley and Ag-Mart are free of any negligence or liability in this case.
  • Ag-Mart’s employee, Jeffrey Oxley, will get to keep his pesticide license, with a 6-month probationary period.
  • The Pesticide Board will amend its ruling so that all violations that were found to be “willful” violations of pesticide rules are now classified as “non-specified.”

All in all, this appears to be a much better deal for Ag-Mart than it is for the state, or for Ag-Mart’s employees. The settlement sends an unfortunate message that the state ultimately will not hold anyone responsible when a preventable pesticide incident has the potential to cause irreparable harm farmworkers and their families. How much worse would a case have to be in order to make the charges stick?

It is understandable that the state wanted to finally settle this case, but the settlement terms seem to be much more about rehabilitating Ag-Mart’s public image than protecting worker health and safety. A 2008 Governor’s Pesticide Task Force examined pesticide health and safety requirements in the aftermath of this case. Some regulations were tightened up around the margins, but larger reforms were rejected, and the funding for educational programs that resulted have all been cut since then in the state’s budget crisis.

One huge question remains unanswered: What is Ag-Mart going to do, and what is the state going to do, to make sure that something like this never happens again in our state? The Pesticide Board’s silence on this question today was deafening.

Update 6/19/10: Take action: write to the pesticide board.

1 comment:

John Runkle said...

The State agency did an extremely poor job of investigating and documenting the pesticide practices of Ag-Mart from the beginning. It never made the case against the company despite Toxic Free NC's attempt to push them. No wonder the Pesticide Board rolled over.

The statement that Ag-Mart was not negligent in any way undercuts any claims on behalf of the workers and their families.

I'd like to see an investigation or audit of what was done.