By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The rumbling engine of a crop duster's airplane jolted Frances Sebring awake.
The cooler in her mobile home was sucking in the vapor of chemicals that were supposed to have landed on a nearby cotton field. The cloud of insecticides swept across the mobile homes of Sebring and her two neighbors on the outskirts of Florence, leaving a path of dead fish and panicked families.
"I thought he [the pilot] was taking the top of the roof off," says Sebring, who ran outside, trying to escape the choking stench. "I couldn't go anywhere to get away from it."
The 68-year-old found her backyard canal, and another pond and canal next door, littered with floating fish. But she was more worried about her son-in-law next door, who had terminal lung cancer.
"The odor is part of living in the country, but you don't expect it to be dumped on you," says Sebring, who has lived in the small farming community for 14 years. "You can have your life ruined with one application."
This wasn't the first mistake by the pilot of the crop-dusting plane, John Pew. Two weeks earlier, Pew's misdirected spray suffocated dozens of nine-pound White Amur grass carp in Chandler and broke David Maldonado's heart.
Pew had sprayed Thiodan and Checkmate over a cotton field to kill the common whitefly, and the toxic cocktail had accidentally misted over a Salt River Project canal. Within hours, Maldonado, a biochemical supervisor for SRP, received a report that fish were leaping out of the canal. Jumping into his truck, he rushed to the canal, where his treasured algae-eaters -- put there as an environmentally friendly answer to chemicals -- were floating belly up, suffocated by pesticide spray.
"I love my fish," Maldonado says. "When something happens to them, it bothers me a lot."
The fish kill cost SRP $4,000 to replace the bottom feeders, Maldonado says. It cost Pew a fine of $113. For dousing Sebring and her neighbors, Pew paid $182.
The violations by Pew, who operates Sarita Aerial Contractors Inc., were his third and fourth in six years for allowing pesticide drift to hit a target other than the crop below his plane. But by the time the investigation into Pew's last complaint was finished, the Arizona Department of Agriculture recognized only one prior violation, slapped on an extra $69 and put Pew on probation for five months. Even if he committed another violation during probation, he would face only a slightly larger fine and a suspended license for 10 days.
Pew says the back-to-back violations were unfair. He didn't know that the ponds and canals had fish in them, and at night, the ideal time to spray, it's difficult to see where, exactly, fish might be.
"I go in there and do an application to the best of my ability, and I end up getting a fine and a violation and possibly my license taken away," he says. "It was one of those things I couldn't fight."
Sebring says the unfairness is how lightly Pew was penalized. Her son-in-law -- who has since succumbed to the cancer -- was already too ill to leave the house that morning in August 1999. But Sebring and her daughter went the next day for a medical examination. Although the two were spared any lasting damage from the pesticides, Sebring is still livid. "I would have thought he would be fined hundreds, if not thousands, for endangerment."
At the Department of Agriculture, the possibility that someone could be hurt or killed doesn't count for much when it comes to punishing errant crop dusters, according to five years of cases reviewed by New Times.
Even when a pilot is grossly negligent, it makes little difference in the penalty unless there is evidence that someone did get hurt. And the evidence required to meet that burden of proof is high.
The result is that pilots rarely pay more than $150 for an unsafe pesticide application. And when the violations pile up, the penalties do not. Even with dozens of violations for spraying everything from schoolyards to the department's own investigators, pilots are usually fined less than $100 more for a repeat offense -- about one day's worth of work. Pilots, who can earn upward of $100,000 a year, cut the department a check and carry on.
A review of more than 500 pesticide compliance and worker protection files at the agriculture department revealed that the bulk of unsafe crop dusting has been carried out by a small group of pilots and the companies they work for. Among the more than 50 pilots licensed to apply pesticides by air in Arizona in the past five years, at least eight were repeat offenders, none with fewer than four violations in the last decade. Two of those pilots had broken state pesticide laws more than 10 times. They faced no costly fines or sanctions to their licenses.
There was Joe Henderson, a crop duster from Gilbert who was found at fault in at least 18 of 27 complaints against him from 1989 to 2000. Before he died in a plane crash last year, the highest penalty Henderson ever paid for a single violation was $496, according to department records.