By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"Our people are busy all the time," says Peterson. "We'd have to look at the priority of things and decide."
What regulators do want to change are the definitions of serious and non-serious violations so more violators could be kicked into the serious category. They want more gradation in the point system, assigning more points for a higher level of misconduct.
Under the current system, they say they are hamstrung in calculating penalties by the ranges set by state lawmakers. Increasing those ranges -- another recommendation by the auditor -- would require a proposal to the Legislature. Department officials say they would support increased fines if lawmakers approved them, but they refuse to make such a proposal themselves, saying it is not their place to do so.
A proposal from the Legislature, however, appears unlikely, given the stance of a key lawmaker.
"What [fines] we have now are adequate to get their attention," says Representative Mike Gleason, R-Sun City West, chairman of the Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee. Gleason has a doctorate in plant physiology and 50 years of experience in agriculture.
"These guys [crop dusters] are professional, by and large, and they do a good job. It's more a matter of being able to identify these people [who violate pesticide application laws], and go out and talk to them," Gleason says.
Talking is just about all the department does to pilots who commit violations. Administrative hearings are available if pilots and regulators disagree on discipline, but officials say they can recall only one such hearing in the last decade. Most cases are settled over the telephone. Pilots sign a consent agreement and send a check.
"We can be heavy-handed when we want to be, but our emphasis is compliance," says Sheldon Jones, director of the department. Inspections of pesticide sellers, buyers and applicators maintain oversight of the industry, he says.
Gleason says Jones has turned the department around, reorganizing the agency so that staffers are accountable to department heads instead of members of industry. (Before there was one agriculture department, industry leaders were often put in charge of separate agriculture commissions.)
But there are signs that the agency is still closely tied to the industry. The department has opened up its rules for revision, using a process dominated by a long list of people who either work for the department or have ties to the agricultural industry. Thirty-three people, including representatives from the Arizona Farm Bureau, the Arizona Cotton Growers Association and the Arizona Crop Protection Association, are updated by e-mail as the revisions progress. Penalties haven't come up yet.
"I don't think anyone is going to come out and support penalty increases," says Marilyn Martin, executive director of the Arizona Crop Protection Association, which represents the pesticide industry and people who are certified to advise farmers of which chemicals to apply. "We'd really raise our eyebrows at raising penalties on anyone."
Peterson says the department is getting input from all sides and plans to hold public meetings before the formal rule-changing process begins.
Some biologists say fish are the environmental equivalent of the canary in the coal mine. Fish die instantly when exposed to many chemicals and are especially sensitive to pesticides, which are water soluble and ingested immediately through their gills, says Tony Porti, a research specialist and aquaculturist for the Maricopa Agricultural Research Center.
"We need to get fish in the water all around us because . . . if the canary falls over, maybe there's a problem," says Porti, who raises thousands of fish for use in canals across Arizona. "It's important because we're ingesting that water."
It was fear of poisoned water that worried Fernando Mezquita, a former deacon of Immaculate Conception Parish who ministered to migrant workers in the Yuma area. Three years ago, Mezquita got a call from a woman who was afraid her husband would lose his job on a farm if she called authorities. A pesticide sprayed the night before had killed all the fish in the canal, she told him. Mezquita was afraid that the workers were drinking the canal water.
"People who live there just put up with it [pesticide spraying] because they're migrant workers and don't have a place to go," he says. "I was concerned about the little ones, the kids, because it may take years to show up in their systems."
Mezquita called the Department of Agriculture.
Less than two hours later, investigator Frank Zamudio arrived at the labor camp at Texas Hill Farms, east of Yuma. Workers told Zamudio that, yes, they used the canal water in their homes, but it had been shut off when they discovered the dead fish, according to a report on the investigation.
A sample of water taken from one worker's house came back negative for organophosphates. Tests of dead fish from the canal, however, were positive for endosulfan, an organophosphate that is toxic to fish, birds and other wildlife, and can affect the central nervous system in humans in high doses. The label warns against releasing the pesticide within 300 feet of lakes, ponds and other water sources.
Water from the canal was never tested, the investigator's report said, and it's unclear whether the farm workers were told when they could turn their water back on. The department's job is to figure out where pesticide drifted, Peterson says, and testing the fish did that.