Company fined $56K in pesticide exposure case


(Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commissioner Juan Hidalgo speaks Friday about a 2017 pesticide exposure incident that sickened a number of farmworkers in Watsonville. Photo by Erik Chalhoub/Register-Pajaronian)

WATSONVILLE — The Santa Cruz County Department of Agriculture announced on Friday it will be fining Watsonville-based Los Amigos Harvesting $56,000 over a June 2017 pesticide exposure incident which sickened a number of field workers.

According to county spokesman Jason Hoppin, on the morning of June 29, 2017, 15 farmworkers experienced physical symptoms of pesticide exposure. An investigation found that an unlicensed contractor had applied pesticide to a nearby farm on Wagner and East Lake avenues, causing it to drift towards the workers.

Agricultural Commissioner Juan Hidalgo said Friday that the case has been ongoing for the past year, and that it had been challenging to piece everything together.

“This took a lot of time and effort,” Hidalgo said. “The information we needed to collect, the people we needed to interview to know exactly what happened — there was plenty to consider.”

The investigation found that several violations, under Title 3 of the California Code of Regulations and the Food and Agricultural Code, had taken place. This included operating a pest control business without a license and failing to perform pest control in a safe, effective manner.

Los Amigos Harvesting, which operates out of a farm owned by Garrett Farms, applied the pesticides Pristine Fungicide, Rally 40WSP, DiPel DF and Widespread Max. The substances are commonly used in the industry, but the way in which they are applied must be regulated.

“The problem wasn’t what they were using, it was the manner in which they did,” Hidalgo said.

Field workers who were exposed to the pesticides experienced headache, dizziness, itchy and watery eyes, as well as acute nausea, resulting in vomiting. The symptoms persisted in the week following the exposure.

The fine of $56,000 is one of the largest fines the Department of Agriculture has ever issued, Hidalgo said.

“We take this kind of case very seriously,” he said. “[The applicator] had plenty of opportunities to make the right decision, and he failed to do so.”

A call to Los Amigos Harvesting requesting comment was not returned as of press time.

Also fined was FMG Farm Contractor. According to Hidalgo, farmworkers who experienced lesser symptoms had reported they were not feeling well to their FMG foreman, but he failed to give them proper attention. The labor contractor has been charged $1,250.

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