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Pesticide Case Faces First Criminal Prosecution in 14 Years

Los Angeles Times
October 10, 2005 California
By Lee Romney, Times Staff Writer

Pesticide Case is Upping the Ante
A poisoning trial pitting two brothers comes as farm activists, regulators seek stricter controls.

OAKDALE, Calif. — When toxic fumigant sprayed Arturo Becerra across the face, his vision blurred, his skin tingled and "it felt like my eyes were going to pop out of my head."

It was the second time the brittle hose had ruptured in the almond orchard in as many days, Becerra told agricultural investigators. But his supervisor ordered him to patch the sprayer and get back to applying methyl bromide, a soil pesticide that can cause irreversible neurological damage and death. The next day, after complaining again of ill health, the 59-year-old Becerra hauled firewood while nauseated and stumbling, his statement said. By the time a son took him to a hospital, he was in a condition investigators would describe as "life-threatening."

The March 2004 poisoning triggered California's first criminal prosecution in a pesticide-related matter in 14 years. Trial is scheduled to begin next month against Oakdale ranch manager John Becerra — the injured worker's brother — and Jon Hoff, a co-owner of Golden West Nuts, whose offices and processing plant are in nearby Ripon.

The case comes as regulators and farmworker advocates press for stricter and more consistent pesticide enforcement.

Advocates for years have complained that many county agricultural commissioners — who carry out the bulk of California's pesticide policing — issue mere warnings or impose small fines when workers are at risk.

Now, as rapid growth places more homes and schools in proximity to sprayed fields, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation is pushing to raise the bar — citing the Golden West case as an example.

Department regulators recently drafted a policy urging commissioners to give priority to the most hazardous incidents, standardize enforcement and refer egregious cases to prosecutors for broader penalties.

Department director Mary-Ann Warmerdam is seeking to turn that policy into regulation to give the rules lasting teeth. Seventeen agricultural groups recently signed on in support.

As further evidence of escalating enforcement, Warmerdam points to steep recent fines by commissioners in Stanislaus and Fresno counties and a civil case filed by Kern County prosecutors two weeks ago. That case alleges that a pesticide-applicator company continued spraying even after noting the presence of farmworkers in a downwind grape orchard. (All but four of the 27 workers were taken to a hospital.)

"I want to make it very clear that we have a zero-tolerance policy for pesticide misuse, whether it affects farmworkers in the fields or drifts into residences," Warmerdam said. "We looked at ourselves and said, 'We can do some things better.' "

Worker advocates are cautiously optimistic that she is sincere. Still, saying that previous pledges of enhanced enforcement have proved hollow, they countered with a bill — SB 455 — opposed by agricultural commissioners and industry groups and vetoed by the governor Friday.

In addition to turning the enforcement policy into regulation, the bill would have made it harder for commissioners to issue only warnings in incidents that could have led to injury. Martha Guzman, a legislative analyst with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, which sponsored the bill, said advocates will now try to close that loophole. Regardless of whether injury results, "when you put somebody's life in danger, you should be fined," she said, "just like when you're speeding on the highway or drinking and driving."

Against that backdrop looms the case of Golden West Nuts.

Hoff and John Becerra each face two felony and three misdemeanor counts alleging intentional violations of occupational safety or health standards and pesticide regulations. Among the charges: failure to provide training, respirators and other protective equipment, and failing to provide medical care after the worker was injured.

John Becerra, facing a separate felony count, also is accused of offering false or forged documents. According to the Stanislaus County agricultural commissioner's investigative report, Becerra told doctors that his brother had been sickened by the less toxic — and less regulated — pesticide Roundup, even bringing a Roundup label to the hospital.

Golden West's restricted-materials permit did not include methyl bromide. Nor had the company notified the county commissioner within 24 hours of fumigating, as required by law, records show.

John Becerra also allegedly forged documents to make it look as though workers had received methyl bromide training before the incident.

Both men face possible jail time, and Agricultural Commissioner Dennis Gudgel is separately seeking fines as high as $500,000 against the company.

John Becerra's attorney did not return calls seeking comment. Kirk McAllister, the lawyer for Hoff — who was not present during the poisoning — said "the charges are absolutely baseless, and you can expect that this case will be fought as vigorously as possible."

Regardless of the outcome, the prosecution shines a light on California's pesticide enforcement system.

A physician who treated Arturo Becerra at an Oakdale hospital reported his exposure to the county agricultural commissioner — a legal obligation with which many physicians fail to comply, state regulators concede.

The "willful" nature of the alleged violations prompted Gudgel to involve the district attorney's office, which filed the criminal charges last spring.

Arturo Becerra was hospitalized for eight days with methyl bromide in his bloodstream, reports show. His symptoms have included gastrointestinal problems, disorientation, difficulty walking and blurred vision. Some persistent problems have kept him from working, one of his sons, also named Arturo, said in a brief interview.

Methyl bromide is being phased out under an international protocol and is no longer applied to harvested nuts. But exemptions exist for soil fumigation, where no adequate alternatives have been developed. It is applied before planting. In California, it is most widely used in strawberry fields.

Warmerdam, of the Department of Pesticide Regulation, said the Golden West case was unusual in its severity. But advocates who have learned details of the case say many of the problems that led to Arturo Becerra's poisoning, such as poor training and inadequate gear, are common.

They suggest that most incidents go unreported, in part because workers are not adequately informed about where to turn for help and are afraid to risk losing their jobs.

"There's a cultural acceptance of these dangers," said Guzman. According to Arturo Becerra's statement to agricultural investigators, he was orally trained by supervisor Everardo Ruiz on March 10, 2004, on how to apply the fumigant to tree holes at the company's ranch.

He was not wearing goggles or other protective gear when the hose snapped March 11. The next day, when it ruptured again and sprayed his face, he was working alone — in violation of the manufacturer's label.

In a written statement, Ruiz denied knowledge of Arturo Becerra's ill health or the broken hose. But Becerra said Ruiz told him to wash his face, repair the hose and get back to work. A headache, nervousness and digestive distress worsened through the night.

By March 13, "with a sense of uneasiness and shame," Arturo Becerra wrote, he waited at the ranch to "confide in my boss that I felt I was poisoned and I needed assistance."

But Ruiz allegedly told Becerra to finish spraying. When he reported his illness a short time later to the ranch manager, John Becerra allegedly responded: "You are worthless; get back to work. And that stuff won't hurt you a bit; the only thing it can do is leave you sterile — nothing more."

By nightfall, the farmworker was falling down and vomiting profusely. By midnight, the younger Arturo was summoned to the ranch by a worker to take his father to the hospital.

In his statement to investigators, John Becerra said he knew nothing of his brother's condition until he received a call about midnight from his nephew. He also said he offered to take Arturo to the hospital "but was denied."

In prosecutors' cross-hairs is a company revered in Ripon — a Central Valley town of 13,000 — for the civic-mindedness of its founders.

Established in 1983, Golden West sponsors the Almond Blossom Festival and car show. Its processing plant has a cutting-edge private laboratory, and the company recently held a countywide worker safety event. (Regulators say the event was planned before criminal charges were filed.)

"They've done a lot for the community," said Joe Franscella, editor of the Ripon Record, who described the company as conscientious. "If what they've been accused of is true, I'm sure it was completely unintentional and completely an accident."

But Arturo Becerra's son said that depiction of the company is not shared by fieldworkers. One thing is certain: The incident has fractured a family.

"They're brothers. They were very close," the son said. "But not anymore."