Settlement reached in Earlimart's pesticide incident

EARLIMART, Calif. - Drifting pesticides that sickened residents and led to an evacuation of this small farm town last year resulted Thursday in the largest state settlement in a pesticide case.

Wilbur-Ellis Co. agreed to pay $150,000 for letting toxic metam-sodium fumes drift while fumigating a potato field on the edge of this San Joaquin Valley town in November, forcing 180 residents to evacuate.

An odor compared to rotten eggs and dirty socks overwhelmed residents, and some experienced vomiting, headaches, dizziness, stinging eyes, and shortness of breath.

The state Department of Pesticide Regulation and the Tulare County Agriculture Commissioner's Office launched an investigation and found the company failed to take precautions to prevent the cancer-causing pesticide from drifting.

In settling the case, the company will pay $75,000 in civil penalties and an additional $75,000 for medical care of those who were sickened.

''I think it's a good step and companies will pay more attention to what they're doing around populated areas,'' said Lucy Huizar, a 42-year-old mother of three who was sickened along with her 13-year-old son.

About 30 of those poisoned in the town of about 3,000 people - mostly Hispanic and Filipino farmworkers - are still suffering from respiratory problems, headaches, dizziness and eye and throat irritation.

With the settlement, Huizar's son Jaime, who was in good health before the accident and now uses an inhaler to treat asthma, will be able to see a specialist. Money from the settlement will pay to transport and treat those who are still suffering.

Wilbur-Ellis, which did not admit wrongdoing, agreed in the settlement to provide safety training to employees using the chemical and to develop an emergency response plan by November.

The handling of the incident sparked widespread criticism for the delayed response by emergency workers when waves of people began falling ill. Because of the possibility of toxic contamination, a hazardous materials team was called in and people were stripped and hosed down.

''We're pleased that the state took aggressive action,'' said Cruz Philips of the United Farm Workers. ''It was very traumatic for these people. They got evacuated, got stripped and hosed down and went to the hospital. They missed school and a lot of them missed work.''

The $150,000 settlement is the largest ever reached in California in a pesticide misuse case, said DPR director Paul Helliker.

Half of the medical expense fund will be administered by the company and half by someone to be selected by the UFW, which helped victims find a lawyer and get medical treatment.

Because $75,000 probably won't cover long-term medical costs for those still suffering from exposure, a lawsuit is planned for pain and suffering, lost wages and recouping medical expenses, Philips said.

Officials at San Francisco-based Wilbur-Ellis, which provides crop consulting and chemical application services, refused to comment on any possible civil action. A company lawyer said it agreed to the settlement to avoid the uncertainty, delay and expense of litigation.

Metam-sodium, a fumigant on the state's list of cancer-causing pesticides, is fast becoming an alternative to methyl bromide, a highly toxic fumigant being phased out because of unhealthy side effects.


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