WENATCHEE WORLD

Monday - June 13, 2005

 

Exposed - Politics and pesticides
Pesticide enforcer - 'Always a hostile situation': Pesticide
inspector is often not a welcome visitor, but the job must be done

 

By James Pitkin
 
For an hour, Larry Auvil listened to Matt West, a pesticide inspector for the state Department of Agriculture, tell him what was wrong with his farm.

It was the afternoon of July 14, 2004, and temperatures were in the upper 90s. West had just done a spot inspection for worker safety at Auvil's 30-acre apple orchard south of Orondo, and he'd found problems.

As the talk went on, Auvil's face grew increasingly tense. Business was not going well. Auvil said he has to drive a school bus to make ends meet.

Finally, the busy farmer snapped.


"You drive a bus for five hours a day and then try to do your job," he said, looking West in the eye.

To West, the encounter with Auvil was nothing new.

Like the agency he works for, West, under state law, must be both pesticide educator and pesticide enforcer.

"Sometimes you wear the black hat, and sometimes you wear the white hat," West said. "It can be pretty confusing for both sides."

Auvil, who does not work for Auvil Fruit Co., said in an interview the relationship will always be tense.

"I would hate to have their job," he said. "Because if people are like me, they don't like the intrusion and they don't like the accusation that you've done something wrong. "It seems like it would always be a hostile situation."

The newest inspector in the Wenatchee office, West is working the same areas as David Zamora, an investigator pulled off the job in August 2003 under intense pressure from the agriculture industry.

West said he tries not to let that history affect how he works. But he can't forget what happened to a fellow inspector.

"That's always in the back of your mind - you step on the wrong toes, and whether you were justified or not, there's enough political pressure there to turn the tables on you," he said.

"As far as affecting my daily job, I don't think it's changed the way I do things. But the thought is always back there."

At 8:30 a.m. on that July 14, West climbed into a state pickup parked behind the Department of Agriculture's Miller Street office, attached his cell phone and laptop to the dashboard, and headed out on patrol.

It was a typical start to his day during the spring and summer spraying season. When there are no complaints to investigate, he drives the highways and back roads. He stops to watch when he sees people spraying - looking for drift onto workers and roads, or other
safety problems.

Heading east over the Odabashian Bridge, he glanced up and saw a tiny puff of mist above an orchard in the distance.

"There's somebody spraying," he said, pointing through the windshield.

Looking south along Baker Flats, he spotted another plume, then another one half a mile off.

If he stopped every time he saw someone spraying, he said, "we'd never make it out of Wenatchee."

His truck is stocked with education materials such as colored pamphlets and safety posters to hand farmers and workers.

But it also has full-body protective gear, respirators, sampling equipment, digital cameras and a GPS locator - everything he needs to do full-scale investigations, which could lead to fines or license suspensions.

Like most of the state's pesticide investigators, West's background is in agriculture.

Now 30 years old, he grew up on a sugar beet, barley and potato farm in southern Idaho before earning his bachelor's degree in plant science at the University of Idaho. He was a pesticide investigator in Montana before moving to Wenatchee, with his wife and three
children, to work here in March 2003.

At first, his beat was Okanogan and Chelan counties. But after Zamora was pulled off the job, West volunteered to take over his territory in Douglas and Grant counties. He was eager to get back to his roots dealing more with row crops.

The territory includes 2,748 farms, according to the 2002 U.S. Agriculture Census, as well as 2,210 licensed chemical applicators and 29 pesticide dealerships, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

West spent two years on a church mission in the Dominican Republic, where he became fluent in Spanish - a skill he puts to use interviewing farmworkers about safety conditions.

West inspected Auvil's farm after he saw workers pruning trees behind a sign that said the field was off limits because it had recently been sprayed. He later determined enough time had passed, and the workers were allowed to be there.

With Auvil's permission, West went ahead with a routine inspection - interviewing workers in Spanish about safety and working conditions, then meeting with Auvil to look at spray records and talk about how the farm is run.

In his hour-long talk, he told Auvil the problems he found:  His workers needed training on pesticide safety - there was no proof they'd had it in the last five years. He needed to keep a change of clothes where he mixes his chemicals. Soap and water had to be within
a quarter mile of his workers in the field. There was information missing from his spray records.

That was when Auvil snapped. But West said standards at Auvil's farm were about average for what he finds. Auvil was given a warning for incomplete spray records, lack of a spray notification board for workers, failing to give workers official training and failing to remove the no-entry sign from his field.

Auvil later told a reporter he felt unfairly targeted.

"Just the fact that he comes in assuming that there's a problem there, I feel like I'm on the defensive," Auvil said. "I really didn't like having to do it, and I really didn't like the amount of time that it took."

Herb Teas, a former fieldman with Northwest Wholesale in Wenatchee, which sells pesticides, said some in the industry fear West is becoming another Zamora, who was accused by farmers of being overzealous.

One complaint farmers made about Zamora was that he allegedly drove around looking for violations, then opened cases using himself as the complainant - a practice that Zamora and West's bosses in Olympia said is necessary and encouraged.

In his last full year as a pesticide inspector in 2002, Zamora investigated 21 cases, reporting four of them himself. The rest came from public complaints, records show.

West investigated 14 cases during 2003, reporting three of them himself. One of his cases was referred to him by Zamora, who saw pesticide from landscape spraying drifting onto traffic on North Wenatchee Avenue.

West said he consulted with Zamora often during his first year on the job, tapping into the more experienced inspector's knowledge of the trade. But Zamora's new assignment, inspecting pesticide use in schools statewide, often has him out on the road.

"We've been pretty unfortunate not to have Dave out in the field," West said. "He's kind of taken a back seat for a while."

West said Zamora is one of the agency's best investigators, and was just doing his job.

"That's the frustrating part to me," he said. "I don't like the guy who writes me a ticket, either. But hey, I was speeding."

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Access denied

Matt West's specialty as a state Department of Agriculture pesticide investigator is safety inspections - making sure farms comply with federal rules on worker protection.

He said that's been more difficult since the agency instituted a new right-of-entry policy under pressure from the Washington Farm Bureau, a 34,000-member nongovernmental advocacy organization that represents family farms.

In 2003, at the same time the Farm Bureau was pushing the agency to reassign pesticide inspector David Zamora, they also were lobbying to keep investigators from entering farms without permission.   The result was the new right-of-entry policy. Signed by Agriculture Director Valoria Loveland on April 7, 2004, it requires inspectors to
ask permission to enter from the owner or manager, and to inform them they can refuse. There's an exception in emergencies, or if evidence in an investigation could be lost.

The safety standards that West looks at went into effect in 1992, but he said many farms don't follow even the basic requirements.


Inspections are a way to find out which rules should be the focus of education efforts, he said.

But after the right-of-entry rule went into effect, he said, several farmers have refused him permission to enter until the next day. When he comes back, he said, farmers have told him they spent the night bringing the farm into compliance.

West also said he also faces delays because many growers call the Washington Farm Bureau, a nongovernmental advocacy group with 34,000 members, before they'll allow him on their property. The Olympia-based lobbying group generally tells growers to cooperate, West said.

To find out whether the rules are being followed, West said, agents need a view of real conditions on farms. To get that, he said, they need timely access. If farmers make changes before inspections, he said, he can't be sure farmworkers are being protected.

"It really defeats the purpose of these on-the-spot inspections," he said.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Exposed - Politics and pesticides
Stemilt run-ins - Inspector who replaced Zamora also had conflicts
with powerful fruit company

By James Pitkin
 
Rolling down Highway 28 in his state-issue pickup, Matt West glanced toward Rock Island and saw two clouds of mist rising high above an orchard.

It was 7 a.m. on June 1 last year, and the plumes were a telltale sign of pesticide spraying - a common sight on a spring morning.

But as a pesticide inspector with the state Department of Agriculture, West hit the brakes. The mist was rising too high and floating in the breeze, making it likely the chemicals were drifting off target.

West drove through Rock Island, found the orchard, and shot digital photos and a 60-second video of the mist rising above utility poles and drifting across Saunders Road, hitting an unprotected fieldworker and several passing cars. Directly across the road were the Rock Island Golf Course and a popular fishing pond.

Only later did West learn the orchard was operated by Wenatchee-based Stemilt Management Inc., the sister company of Stemilt Growers Inc. - one of the largest fruit packers in the world.

"Great," West recalls thinking. "Here we go." The weeks of wrangling that followed show just how difficult it can be for pesticide inspectors to enforce the rules when they're up against a powerful corporate farming operation like Stemilt Management.

West's investigation of the company in many ways paralleled inspector David Zamora's. It was one of Zamora's last cases before he was pulled off inspecting farms under pressure from Stemilt and others in the ag industry.

In both investigations, Stemilt failed to submit its spray records on time, and the records were found to be incomplete or inaccurate.

Both times, the Washington State Farm Bureau - a nongovernmental lobbying group with 34,000 members - intervened in Olympia on Stemilt's behalf.

And in an interview West said that in both cases, Duane Peart, who supervises Stemilt Management orchards in the East Wenatchee area, was uncooperative and tried to stall the investigation.

"Every place he could have thrown up a roadblock, he did," West said.


Dave Mathison, then general manager for Stemilt Management, declined to be interviewed for this story last year, when he still headed the company. But he left a phone message for a reporter saying Stemilt is working to improve its spray practices.

West Mathison, executive vice president of Stemilt Growers, and Greg Smith, safety director for Stemilt Management, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Peart also declined to be interviewed.

Samples West took at the Rock Island orchard tested positive for azinphos-methyl, the chemical the field workers were spraying that day. Used to control codling moth on apples, it's an organophosphate that can damage the nervous system.

West noted in his report that it's likely the pesticide drifted into Putters Pond, where West photographed perch swimming near the shore. West said there were also several cars parked at the public golf course.

According to West's investigation report, he didn't know it was a Stemilt orchard until he encountered field manager Victor Barrios, whom he recognized.

After Zamora's investigation the year before, Smith, the Stemilt safety director, had demanded to Department of Agriculture Director Valoria Loveland that he be personally informed before inspectors enter Stemilt Management property or investigates the company.

In line with that demand, West told Barrios that Smith had to be contacted before they continued with the investigation, and Barrios agreed, according to West's report.

Barrios then left quickly in the direction of two large pesticide plumes shooting up near the golf course, and the plumes stopped, he wrote.

West called Smith at his office and asked for access to the property to do an inspection. Smith told West that he needed to contact the Farm Bureau first.

Smith later arranged for West to meet with Peart and Jeff Lutz, a safety director for the Farm Bureau, at the orchard the next morning. West agreed.

West said in an interview that many farmers call the Farm Bureau before allowing inspectors on their property.

The Farm Bureau normally tells farmers over the phone to cooperate, he said. The Farm Bureau's stated purpose is to help small farmers.

Lutz declined to comment for this story.

At the meeting the next day, West wrote, Peart "immediately became defensive."

"He ... stated that if we are going to get them for every little incident like this then there is no reason for him to even spray because he won't be able to comply," West wrote.

When West told him that there was special equipment to minimize drift, he wrote, Peart said the company - which manages about 9,000 acres of orchards for individuals, family trusts, investors and institutions - couldn't afford it.

Peart accused West of failing to identify himself the day before, West wrote, though West claimed in his report that he gave out his business card. Peart later refused to sign West's request for records, West wrote. According to West, Peart said "it seemed unfair and unnecessary to be asking for a month's worth of applications."

On June 11, Cliff Weed, manager of the agency's pesticide compliance program in Olympia, wrote an e-mail to West asking him to put together a "justification memo" for the Farm Bureau stating his reasons for requesting the records.

"Why do we need to justify this to the Farm Bureau?" West wrote back.

"I personally don't think a records request should have to be justified."

Weed replied that Bob Arrington, assistant director in charge of the agency's pesticide program, "wanted us to do this to continue our working relationship with the FB (Farm Bureau)."

West wrote his justification June 14, saying he wanted to "observe Stemilt's overall practices and not just the application involved in the drift." He also cited the company's previous violations.

Stemilt submitted the records June 24. Noting that Peart failed to submit records on time in Zamora's 2003 case, the agency fined Peart and Stemilt $300, plus an additional $300 because neither had a pesticide license.

In a settlement agreement, Peart and Stemilt agreed to pay the fine and have the agency provide three training sessions for their employees.

Loveland signed the agreement Sept. 3.

In a notice issued Oct. 10, the agency said it intended to give Peart and Stemilt an additional $1,600 fine for spray drifting across Saunders Road and because the orchard worker who was standing in the spray was not wearing protective gear.

"Motorists should not have to assume the risk of being exposed to an acutely toxic pesticide just by driving on Saunders Road," the notice said.

Peart and Stemilt appealed the decision.

In a settlement signed by Loveland on Jan. 26, the agency agreed to instead allow Stemilt to spend $1,600 retrofitting a sprayer with a 36-inch air deflector kit to prevent pesticide mist from drifting upward.

Stemilt provided a receipt from Valley Tractor & Equipment in East Wenatchee showing they spent $2,173 on the gear.

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Zamora's Stemilt investigation

By June 2003, ag-industry officials had been trying for more than a year to have David Zamora pulled off the job as a state Department of Agriculture pesticide inspector.

But when Zamora investigated Stemilt Management Inc., it was among his last cases - one his fellow inspector Matt West said "without a doubt" helped cause his downfall.

Here are the events leading to his removal:

June 11, 2003: West and Flor Tovar, another employee in the agency's Wenatchee office, were visiting an orchard near Pangborn Memorial Airport when they see large plumes rising from a nearby orchard run by Stemilt Management.

They drive up to take a look and see pesticide spray drifting from apples onto cherries planted in the same orchard. Some chemicals that are allowed on apples are banned for cherries. They report the incident to Zamora, who covers Douglas and Grant counties.

June 16, 2003: Zamora goes to the orchard office, where he talks to a receptionist and then tries to find Victor Barrios, the field manager. Zamora talks to a worker and collects cherry samples.

Zamora meets Barrios and continues collecting samples, which later test positive for acetamiprid, a pesticide not approved for use on commercial cherries.

June 17, 2003: Greg Smith, safety director for Stemilt Management, writes to Department of Agriculture Director Valoria Loveland saying Zamora entered the property without permission.

July 2, 2003: Department of Agriculture food-safety agents take more samples of the cherries to determine if they should be embargoed. The samples test negative, possibly because the chemical dissipates over time, according to Claudia Coles, manager of the agency's food-safety program. No embargo is ordered.

Aug. 7, 2003: Zamora's bosses from Olympia meet with Smith, state Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, state Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, and several Washington Farm Bureau officials in a boardroom at Stemilt's Sunnyslope headquarters to complain about Zamora.

Aug. 8, 2003: The Farm Bureau asks Loveland in a letter to pull Zamora off the job pending an investigation. They allege Zamora lied in his reports, disregarded regulations and coerced witnesses. The letter includes Stemilt's account of his investigation.

Aug. 22, 2003: Zamora is pulled off the job and reassigned to inspecting schools.

Feb. 10, 2004: The agency hands out warnings to the fieldworker who supervised the spraying and to Smith for submitting inaccurate records.

Duane Peart, Stemilt's East Unit manager and the person in charge of the orchard, also receives warnings for failing to submit records on time, providing incomplete and inaccurate records, failing to follow pesticide labels and operating "in a faulty, careless or negligent manner ... thus creating an embargo situation."