Buzz Kill

Crop dusters spray pesticides on homes, animals and people while the Arizona Department of Agriculture does little to stop them

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."

Ted Freeman mixes chemicals before they are loaded into the airplane flown (at right) by Dwight Willis of Sarita Aerial Contractors.
Erik Guzowski
Ted Freeman mixes chemicals before they are loaded into the airplane flown (at right) by Dwight Willis of Sarita Aerial Contractors.
Certain pesticides can instantly kill fish in irrigation canals similar to the one in which pilot John Pew is standing.
Erik Guzowski
Certain pesticides can instantly kill fish in irrigation canals similar to the one in which pilot John Pew is standing.
After the chemicals are loaded by Ted Freeman (right), pilot Dwight Willis prepares for takeoff to do a morning application in Queen Creek.
Erik Guzowski
After the chemicals are loaded by Ted Freeman (right), pilot Dwight Willis prepares for takeoff to do a morning application in Queen Creek.
Tony Porti uses a tractor to feed fish at the Maricopa Agricultural Research Center, where thousands of fish were killed on two occasions by pesticide drift from a crop duster.
Erik Guzowski
Tony Porti uses a tractor to feed fish at the Maricopa Agricultural Research Center, where thousands of fish were killed on two occasions by pesticide drift from a crop duster.
(above) Algae-eating bottom feeders are often stocked in canals as an alternative to chemicals, but the fish sometimes fall victim to pesticide poisoning from nearby crop dusting. (below) A feeding device scatters food for fish.
Erik Guzowski
(above) Algae-eating bottom feeders are often stocked in canals as an alternative to chemicals, but the fish sometimes fall victim to pesticide poisoning from nearby crop dusting. (below) A feeding device scatters food for fish.
Four-year-old Rebecca Christensen rides one of the championship quarter horses her mother, Kristi Herbig (right), raises and worries over when crop dusters pass over her horse farm in Eloy.
Erik Guzowski
Four-year-old Rebecca Christensen rides one of the championship quarter horses her mother, Kristi Herbig (right), raises and worries over when crop dusters pass over her horse farm in Eloy.
Jack Peterson, manager of the environmental services division at the Arizona Department of Agriculture.
Jack Peterson, manager of the environmental services division at the Arizona Department of Agriculture.
Proving pesticide drift requires evidence collected by Brenda Ball, an investigator for the Arizona Department of Agriculture.
Erik Guzowski
Proving pesticide drift requires evidence collected by Brenda Ball, an investigator for the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

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.

Chris Carranza and Robert Moseley are in the same crowd. Carranza, who has been found at fault in more than half of 15 complaints, has never been fined more than $117. And the highest penalty ever paid by Moseley, whose history is packed with 11 violations from 26 complaints, was $267.

In many cases it is difficult to pinpoint the number of violations a pilot has accumulated because the agency keeps such bad records. Paper records are destroyed after five years, and about a year ago, the department began deleting computer records more than five years old.

Even records for the last five years, which are used to determine a pilot's prior violations, are incomplete, which means there may be more repeat offenders than records reflect. Some pilots with complaints against them have no case histories in the department's database, and several pilots have case histories that are missing complaints.

Records on crop-dusting companies are just as weak, often showing only a fraction of the complaints and violations involving their pilots. Of the more than 17 companies that have sent pilots out to spray crops in the last decade, about half accounted for the bulk of unsafe sprays. These businesses faced no penalty for their pilots' offenses.

The problem with recordkeeping is that the system has changed through the years, and workers have entered data differently, says Jill Davis, a department spokeswoman. "It isn't a perfect system, so it would be difficult to have an exact number of what someone's done."

Yet a pilot's history is supposed to figure into his fines, so when records are incomplete, the department relies primarily on employees' memories to fill in the gaps.

Davis says Jack Peterson, manager of the environmental services division and a seven-year veteran of the department, can usually recall when a case is missing and take it into account. "We feel it's adequate for that purpose," says Davis.

Perhaps worse than the sheer volume of repeated pesticide violations is the harm the pilots' negligence could have caused. In case after case, pilots are fined a small amount for what could have turned into a disaster. So far, the department says, it has been lucky, at least in avoiding cases where damage to humans or the environment could be proved.

Don't tell that to Carl Hegi's family. They believe pesticide spray killed their father.


A longtime dairy farmer, Carl Hegi worked at a time when new chemicals to control pests were a godsend, and environmental and health concerns had not yet boiled to the surface. John Hegi, Carl's son, recalled days on the family farm in Buckeye, where he and his brothers would play with the pesticides, spraying them on the barn.

"He grew up in an era when that was the future," says John Hegi, a groundskeeper for the University of California at Santa Cruz. "He would have been the last person to say anything bad about the concept."

Retired and 74, Hegi was riding his bicycle to his brother's farm in August 1990 when he was caught in a crop duster's spray. Hegi arrived drenched in methyl parathion, a highly toxic chemical commonly used to kill insects on cotton. High-dose exposure to the compound, which is similar to nerve gas, for even a short time can cause loss of consciousness, difficulty breathing, blurred vision and death, according to the federal health department's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Hegi was in his chemical-drenched clothes for at least half an hour. Three weeks later, at John C. Lincoln Hospital North Mountain, his lungs and kidneys began to fail and his stomach started bleeding. By October 3, 1990, he was dead.

A toxicologist ruled out pesticide poisoning, saying exposure weeks earlier wouldn't explain Hegi's symptoms, according to the pathology report. Symptoms from that type of pesticide typically appear within hours, even minutes, toxicology experts say, and deaths are usually because of respiratory complications (which Hegi had).

Symptoms of pesticide poisoning often mimic other health problems, making illness or death from pesticides difficult to determine, says Ernest Arvizu, a state epidemiology specialist who evaluates pesticide exposure cases from the agriculture department. Doctors could offer no other explanation for Hegi's death.

"No unifying disease process was found to explain the patient's pulmonary and renal failure," medical records state.

Hegi's family still blames pesticide exposure.

"He had always been healthy, so it was surprising," says John Hegi, who expected his father to live into his 90s, as Carl's brothers did. The family sued the applicator, Pierce Aviation, but no doctors would back up a cause of death because of pesticides, says Ian Neale, the family's attorney.

"The obvious reason was that he had been drenched from head to foot by methyl parathion," says Neale. "We were absolutely stymied by their medical opinion and the autopsy."

John Hegi says the lawsuit was settled for a token amount. Jim Pierce, owner of Pierce Aviation, remembers only that Carl Hegi's daughter contacted him, but he doesn't recall the details or the lawsuit. Pierce's lawyer wouldn't comment.

John Hegi says he's not sure whether his father's death was reported to the Department of Agriculture. Officials say they do not remember the case. "We would have liked to know about this," says Peterson, manager of the environmental services division.

Les Davis, executive director of the Arizona Agricultural Aviation Association, was surprised and skeptical when told about the Hegi case. It's critical that people have proof before they accuse aerial applicators of injury, he says. A lot of people complain about pesticide odor, noisy planes and the nuisance of crop dusting, but the evidence of damage is often not there.

"I have never heard of anybody in Arizona being killed by being sprayed by a pesticide. It's just the family saying that's why he died," says Davis, who has operated an aerial application company and is a longtime advocate of pilots. "It's a disservice to agriculture when people make these claims."

Davis, who is adamant that the name "crop duster" be replaced with "aerial applicator," was the last administrator for the Board of Pesticide Control before it was eventually folded into the Department of Agriculture. "I helped write the rules operating right now," he says.

Those rules require a burden of proof that is so high, critics say it is extremely difficult for a pilot to receive a serious penalty and a steep fine.

Poor enforcement was the theme of a scathing report on the department's pesticide compliance program by the Arizona Office of the Auditor General last September. The crux of the problem: Fines are too low to be a deterrent. The auditor found that the point system for determining fines, even when used liberally, was incapable of awarding the maximum fine of $500 for a non-serious violation, a Class 1 misdemeanor. Serious violations, a Class 6 felony, carry a maximum fine of $10,000, but nearly all violations in the last five years were deemed non-serious, even with clear evidence of serious misconduct.

When the audit -- by far the most critical of seven audits of the department's programs -- was released last fall, it was virtually ignored by the media, lawmakers and Governor Jane Hull, who signed a bill to continue the department after its 10-year sunset review.

"It's not a question of getting into some sort of brinkmanship in a sunset bill," said Francie Noyes, a spokeswoman for the governor, when asked about the audit. "The governor is confident that the agency is doing its job."

Peterson agreed, saying the audit didn't sound the alarm bell. "I don't think they found any glaring problems."


If any pilot should have set off alarm bells, it was Joe Henderson. The department investigated 27 complaints against him, fining him in half the cases -- none considered serious.

Pesticide from Henderson's plane hit cars, horseback riders, a plant nursery and a day-care center, according to department records. He sprayed a manufacturing plant while employees were working inside -- twice. He sprayed an entire subdivision in Queen Creek, where neighbors ran for cover from the pesticide that eventually killed the trees lining their front yards. And three years before his death in a plane crash, Henderson killed 80,000 fish in one morning at the University of Arizona's Maricopa Agricultural Research Center.

Fellow pilots say the number of complaints against Henderson should be taken in context. His company, San Tan Dusters, did a high volume of business, and Henderson's clients were primarily farmers whose land came right up next to subdivisions from the East Valley.

"He had a wonderful operation," says Davis. "He was very careful with chemicals and one heck of a pilot."

But to some people on the ground below, Henderson was a daredevil. He was once fined $240 for a complaint that he was "flying like a maniac," department records show. Bill Day, a Chandler rancher, pulled out a rifle and shot Henderson's plane when he continued to buzz Day's horses, according to news accounts in April 1994. Day was charged with aggravated assault and criminal damage, and Henderson was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Federal Aviation Administration. About the same time, Cheryl Livermore told the media that she and two friends were "blitzkrieged" by Henderson while horseback riding.

Agriculture department officials acknowledge that they have repeat offenders who need to be regulated differently, yet they seem mired in a system that favors industry over public safety. Leaders from industry, the Legislature and the department are reluctant to push for change.

"We do our best to make sure we know what people are doing," says Peterson. "By doing this, people are always on their toes, and we have compliance with the law."

The auditor general didn't find that to be true. Besides finding that penalties are too low to deter violators, auditors also found that regulators almost never know when or where crop dusting will take place. Pilots, even chronic violators, don't have to report what they sprayed until they've hit -- or missed -- their targets.

Setting up a system like the one in California, where all pilots must get permission ahead of time to spray, would not be worthwhile, department officials in Arizona say, because less than 1 percent of the estimated 30,000 pesticide applications ever result in a complaint. Asked several times about monitoring repeat offenders -- a recommendation of the auditor general -- Peterson agreed that it should be done. But he wouldn't make any promises.

"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.

"We can make every effort to protect public health, but again, we have to regulate the applicator," he says. "We've shown the stuff is there. . . . It's an expensive process to run each one of these tests."

Cody Pierce of Pierce Aviation was the crop duster who dropped endosulfan less than 75 feet from the canal. Pierce, who had no prior violations, was assigned points for human exposure, for water contamination (despite the absence of water samples) and for knowingly committing the violation. No points were assigned for killing fish. The department labeled the case non-serious, and Pierce was fined $99.

"He got the maximum fine you could give him," says Peterson.

Giving Pierce more points for human exposure would have required proof that someone got medical treatment. The only category in which Pierce could have gained points was wrongfulness of conduct. His violation was ranked "substantial," the second highest category. To call it "aggravated," which would have bumped him to the serious category, would require proving "substantial probability" of serious physical injury, sustained medical treatment or enough environmental damage to pose a threat to public health, safety or property. The case did not rise to that level, says Peterson.

Neither did the cases of Erin Petersen and Cort Bacon, even though they received medical treatment for pesticide exposure. The Rural/Metro firefighters were sprayed while refilling their fire truck beside a canal in Yuma. Because their hospitalization lasted less than 12 hours, the penalty against the pilot, Jeffrey Kottenbrook, was $99.

One of the agriculture department's repeat offenders, Robert Moseley, received only a warning letter for letting pesticide drift hit three retirees on Mountain View golf course in Laveen in February 1996.

"It was kind of bizarre because all of a sudden there was a plane that looked like it was going to get us," says Paul Fanning, who suspects that the pneumonia he caught soon after the golf game was pesticide-related. "It surprised me that they didn't fine him because you're using a chemical that affects citizens."

Other states give more weight to the probability of harm to humans, animals and the environment, even when none has been found. The North Dakota Department of Agriculture, for example, penalized two people with fines of $2,575 and $4,500 for possible human exposure to pesticide drift, although the health effects from exposure were never proven. One case involved workers on an oil rig who claimed they were sprayed by a crop duster. The other was a 12-year-old girl who was sprayed while running a tractor.

"Pesticide damage is very, very difficult to prove," says Jerry Thompson, the North Dakota department's pesticide coordinator. "We look at the potential for injury."

Peterson says Arizona does take into account the likelihood of harm, but he is leery of giving too much weight to something not supported by evidence. "It just leaves you open to legal challenges over and over again," he says. "If there are situations where problems have occurred, we will address it."

Although Peterson says evidence of damage is a prerequisite for a serious violation and steep fine, that was not the case in one of the rare $6,000 fines levied against a pilot.

Penny Freeman was flashing her headlights, but she couldn't stop pilot Tommy Socha from spraying methyl parathion as his plane dived under a power line, flew over the road and crossed a field south of Coolidge. The spray coated her windshield, but more important, Socha hit a field of alfalfa that was later harvested as hay for livestock. Investigator C. Ray Peery was worried that the chemical, which can cause serious problems for livestock, had contaminated the hay.

Peery warned the farmer who harvested the hay, but tests of the alfalfa showed safe levels for methyl parathion, and for acephate and chlorpyrifos, two chemicals left over from a previous application by Socha.

Just two years earlier, Socha paid only $42 for a complaint that pesticide exposure at a mobile home park caused four children to vomit.

In the alfalfa case, no people, crops or animals were damaged. The $6,000 penalty was based partly on how close Socha came to contaminating livestock's food, which could lead to contaminating the human food supply. A bigger issue was Socha's negligence, says Peterson. The pilot actually sprayed the car and the field, as opposed to allowing drift to hit an unintended target.

By avoiding similar violations during a year of probation, Socha ended up paying $2,000. The case is one of the few the department put in the serious category.

Southwest of Phoenix, fishermen scooping up poisoned fish from a canal didn't warrant the same concern.


Dove hunting season was under way, and Kevin Ellis and fellow officer Steve Middleton from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had a farmer's permission to monitor hunters on September 1, 1997, at Paloma Partners Ranch southwest of Phoenix. But instead of watching birds become prey, the officers watched a black plane spray pesticide dangerously close to a canal bordering a cotton field.

An hour after the spraying, fumes still hung in the air. Ellis peered into the canal and saw water rippling with the jerks and twists of fish struggling for oxygen. Ellis drove down the canal for six miles, watching thousands of fish turning belly up.

Then he saw something more frightening: fishermen dipping their nets into the canal, scooping out the floating fish and loading them into their vehicles for food. Ellis says he ran up to them, pleading with as many as he could not to take the poisoned fish, but more people were coming to the water as he spoke, and he wasn't sure if he stopped everyone in time.

The incident was reported to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which turned over the case to the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

The fishermen apparently meant little to the department. Daniel Bossard of Pierce Aviation, the offending pilot, received points for killing fish and for knowingly committing the violation. No points were assigned for evidence of human exposure, water contamination (the pesticides Lorsban and Thiodan were detected), or bird kills (Middleton found a dead turkey vulture near the canal, which wasn't retrieved or tested by the department).

Asked about the void of penalties for possible human harm, given the water and fish contamination, Peterson says that aspect was considered, but the department threw up its hands when it discovered that the canal, the water and the fish all belonged to Paloma Partners Ranch. "Those people [the fishermen] would have been trespassing," says Peterson. Had it been a public water source, which it wasn't, the outcome would have been different, he added.

Bossard's violation, his fourth complaint since 1990, was deemed non-serious, and the department fined him $113. His case history includes investigations into the spraying of a trailer park and its pool area in September 1991, and pesticide drift onto a romaine lettuce field in March 1994. Further information was not available because of the destruction of paper files after five years.

Bossard was not surprised by the fish kill, according to an investigator's report. Although winds were calm, and nothing unusual happened, Bossard told the investigator he faced a number of obstacles: fish stocked close to a cotton field, a pesticide that tends to hang in the air, and humidity that makes drift hard to avoid.

"We'll never be able to get away from drift. It's going to be there," says Pew, the pilot whose pesticide drift killed neighbors' fish in Florence and fish in an SRP canal in Chandler.

Nonetheless, the industry has made changes to minimize drift, he says. Booms on planes have been shortened for a more narrow line of spray that's easier to control. Nozzles are larger, creating large droplets that hit their target better than a fine mist. And flaggers who used to stand in the field, marking off rows, have been replaced with cockpit satellite positioning systems, which outline the pilot's route.

"We're not renegades out there running around," says Pew, a Mesa native who started his crop-dusting business in Coolidge nearly two decades ago. "The cowboys are gone. This is a highly sophisticated, expensive business."

Pilots routinely postpone applications when the winds aren't right, Pew says, and they will turn down jobs if nearby homes or other obstacles make spraying too tricky.

Arizona has buffer zones that restrict pesticide applications within one-fourth mile of schools and day-care centers. In designated urban areas next to farmland, pilots must notify the state 24 hours before spraying.

But the state's crop-dusting industry is shrinking, putting pressure on crop dusters to take jobs if they can.

Several decades ago, there were 60 crop-dusting companies in Arizona. Today there are 17. Farmland is shrinking, and what's left is farmed with new pesticides that require fewer applications. The widespread use of bt cotton, genetically engineered to produce a toxin that kills the dreaded pink bollworm, has reduced the need for pesticides on Arizona's largest cash crop.

On the perimeters of Phoenix, farmers are more likely to use ground rigs than an airplane to apply pesticide, sparing the farmer headaches when neighbors complain about a plane spraying nearby.

"Our family made a commitment to do everything by ground," says Kevin Rogers, a fourth-generation farmer on land in Mesa, Scottsdale and Laveen. "It makes us better neighbors because we're so close to town."

With fewer pesticide-spraying companies competing for less business, pilots admit the combination can lead to risk-taking. Jobs that aerial applicators might have rejected as too close to a home or a fish pond are flown to keep their business going.

"If you really don't want to do it, you can say no, and I have," says Joel Cyr, a pilot who operates Cyr Aviation Inc. "But can I afford to say no on this case?" That's always the question, he says.

Even as pesticide use drops, farmers don't want to lose the option of aerial spraying.

While the use of many chemical compounds has dropped dramatically, the application of others, including Methamidophos (used on cotton, potatoes and tomatoes) and Imidacloprid (used on vegetables, fruits and other crops), has remained steady.

Davis of the Arizona Agricultural Aviation Association says the industry is just becoming more specialized. Aerial applicators will always be relied upon for certain types of crops in rural Arizona, which is the nation's top producer of iceberg and romaine lettuce during the winter months.

Rogers, the Valley farmer, says even though his pesticide use has dropped as much as 80 percent, he and other growers fear that bugs will become resistant to bt cotton and new pesticides. They don't want to lose the option of spraying by air.

Stiffer penalties could hurt crop dusters, the farmers say, and crop dusters agree.

"If they go to a higher point system, it will devastate us," says Pew, who has started Farm Plan, a type of credit card system for growers who can't immediately pay the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars it costs for each pesticide application. "It will put us out of business."

"The aerial applicators are a dying industry," says Rogers. "I wouldn't want this to be the final blow to push them out of business."


Davis says the important thing to remember is that agricultural aviation is a field of professionals, not mavericks from the 1940s and 1950s.

"It's not the old crop duster who put a scarf on, and off he goes in an open cockpit," he says.

It's not unusual for today's pilots to have master's degrees and be community leaders. Pew, for example, is a bishop for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Besides, pilots have too much invested in their half-million-dollar planes to be mavericks, Davis says.

But the image of professionalism is lost on many people who have been caught in a crop duster's spray. David Hart says he was sure the pilot flying back and forth over his house in Willcox nearly two years ago could see him swinging his arms. After several more passes, Hart had enough. Grabbing his gun, he aimed it at the crop duster, Tracey Williams of Ag-Air, using the scope to read the numbers on the plane. The pass was the pilot's last over Hart's property.

"I was hoping that it would at least move him away," says Hart. Tests for chemicals on his yard came back positive, and the department issued Williams a warning letter.

"I never saw the guy to begin with," says Williams, who insisted he was flying above the field on the other side of the road. "I don't like anyone who's going to point a gun at me. Why he was upset, or why he has rage, I don't know."

Kristi Herbig says she wouldn't resort to violence or intimidation to stop the planes that constantly fly over her horse farm in Eloy. She just wishes pilots could see the damage of one unfortunate flight.

Herbig is an early riser, tending to the nearly 20 championship quarter horses she breeds. One August morning in 1999, Herbig could barely get out of bed to vomit. Her husband, an asthmatic, was coughing. Dragging herself out the door, Herbig followed the trail of dead frogs, rodents and birds to the fish floating in her horses' water tank.

Remembering the plane she had heard flying over the house the night before, Herbig realized that her property had been sprayed. But her biggest concern was for her livelihood -- the horses, some of which were coughing and not eating. Several months later, she wondered if the dead foal from one of her mares was caused by pesticides.

Herbig filed a complaint with the Department of Agriculture two days after the incident, but it was closed without action when evidence indicated that no drift occurred. Several weeks later, the department reopened the case when delayed laboratory analysis showed high levels of pesticide residue on her property.

The pilot was fined $141.

Most disturbing was that Herbig lives 675 feet from the crop that was sprayed, and there are no homes nearby.

"They're snooping," she says of the crop duster. "If they have to fly that far out of their way to hit my house, they're doing something wrong."

The regulators are doing something wrong, too, when they fail to adequately penalize crop dusters, says Sebring, the woman whose mobile home, backyard canal and terminally ill son-in-law were hit with pesticide spray.

"I don't think anyone would deliberately do that, but he [the pilot] was negligent," she says. "If you live near farms, you have to put up with crop dusting. But I don't accept being sprayed on."

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