Change the law, protect the workers

Change the law, protect the workers

- in Fitzsimon File

The more you read about the Florida produce company that grows tomatoes in Eastern North Carolina, the worse it gets. The state Department of Agriculture has fined AG-Mart $184,500 for 369 violations related to its use of pesticides.

State officials say the company sprayed poisonous chemicals while workers were in the fields, allowed people to work in fields just after they were sprayed, and used the pesticides more frequently than the law allowed. There are also charges that the company did not provide training or safety equipment for its employees.

The company faces a lawsuit by the family of a boy born with no arms and legs whose parents worked in the fields before and during the time the child’s mother was pregnant.  The News and Observer reports that the lawyer for the parents also represents several other former employees who have children with birth defects.

The company disputes everything, the fine, the charges, and the link between the pesticides and the birth defects. The latest news is that state pesticide officials and the company cannot reach a settlement on the fines and the case may go to the State Pesticide Board. 

The News and Observer story says the state has been “trying unsuccessfully to reach a settlement with the company…” and “have not received an acceptable offer.”  State law requires that officials seek a settlement to avoid a hearing on the fine.

An acceptable offer? The company was spraying deadly chemicals in fields while people were working in them, likely causing birth defects in employee’s children, and state officials are weighing offers that would reduce the fine to avoid a hearing before the State Pesticide Board. 

The only acceptable offer is that the company pays the fine. Then state officials need to see what can be done to prevent this from happening again. The most obvious solution is one that has been suggested for at least 20 years, move the regulation of pesticides from the Department of Agriculture, long dominated by agri-business interests and the money they donate to campaigns, to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The Agriculture Department only inspected the company’s farms after the EPA told state officials about the company’s problems in Florida. News accounts also reported that the Department declined to investigate in 2003 after the Department of Labor found pesticide violations while looking into violation of housing regulations at the company’s farms.

A couple of weeks ago, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler told the News and Observer that he had not read or been briefed on the report on AG-Mart. Probably be a good idea for him to at least browse through it at some point, since it is the biggest fine issued in his Department’s history and it is a case that involves the safety of hundreds of workers.

Pesticide regulation is an environmental issue, not an agricultural one. Making the company pay its fine after it blatantly violates the law and endangers lives is moral issue, not a matter for negotiation.  Time to change the law, change who regulates pesticides, and start protecting the people who pick the food we eat everyday