Buzz Kill

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"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.

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley