State’s spraying rules need more debugging

By: - December 10, 2008 1:01 pm

Published in the News & Observer

The state Department of Agriculture's case against Ag-Mart Produce, Inc. for pesticide violations has dragged on for three years now and the state is still struggling to make the fines stick. This protracted legal mess has uncovered glaring deficiencies in North Carolina's pesticide law.

In 2005, the Agriculture Department started investigating Ag-Mart, a corporate tomato grower, after three women who worked in its fields gave birth to babies with serious physical deformities. Inspectors cited Ag-Mart for hundreds of violations, including sending its employees into recently sprayed fields before it was safe to do so. In September of this year, Ag-Mart workers testified before the N.C. Pesticide Board that supervisors ordered them to work in fields still wet with pesticides.

However, Ag-Mart, which denies it harmed anyone, argues that the state cannot assess fines based on the company's records of pesticide application times because those records were miserably inaccurate. Ag-Mart says it did not keep precise records of when pesticides were sprayed or what time workers re-entered sprayed fields.

This ridiculous defense may actually win the day, because state law doesn't require growers to keep records of when they spray or when workers are required to re-enter the fields.

There has been some effort to improve pesticide laws since the Ag-Mart case began. The General Assembly passed a law earlier this year requiring the Pesticide Board to enact modest improvements in pesticide record-keeping requirements, but the legislation did not go far enough to provide meaningful protection for farmworkers and the public. The Pesticide Board continues to deliberate on whether the state has proved its case against Ag-Mart, but it doesn't have to wait for the case to end. The board is now in a prime position to strengthen the state's ability to prosecute such violations in the future.

The Pesticide Board's is proposing to require companies to record the specific time of pesticide applications. However, the board would not require this documentation for all ground applications of pesticides, just those that are applied when workers are present.

We know that the effects of pesticides often reach beyond workers in the field when pesticide residues drift onto neighboring land, homes, schools and roadways. Given this very real hazard, growers should be required to record the times of all pesticide applications. Such a rule would be simpler, clearer and safer for everyone who lives or works in farming communities. It would also improve enforcement efforts for both workplace pesticide complaints and pesticide drift complaints.

In addition, the board should require growers to record the time and day that workers re-enter fields where pesticides have been applied. Common sense tells us that this information is necessary for the Agriculture Department to determine whether a grower has ordered workers back into the fields too soon after a pesticide application. Early re-entry violations are all too common, but proving them in court can be tricky — especially when a company can argue, as Ag-Mart has, that its own records are imprecise.

If these changes had been in place three years ago, the Ag-Mart saga might have been an open-shut case. With these additions, the Pesticide Board's proposed rules can achieve the goals of better protecting farm workers from pesticide exposure and strengthening the Department of Agriculture's ability to enforce our existing laws regarding pesticide use..

For the sake of North Carolina's farm workers and farming communities, the board should use this opportunity to close as many existing loopholes as possible.

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