April 23, 2009

Investigation continues in alleged pesticide misuse in Immokalee


State inspectors returned today to an Immokalee farm where pesticide misuse was alleged to find out if workers have been properly trained.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services began an investigation last week after receiving an allegation that exposure at Johnson Plants interfered with the pregnancies of two women.

“We found some gaps in some of the information,” said Andy Rackley, the department’s director for agricultural environmental services. “We sent the inspectors back out.”

Rackley said the department has not obtained any information that pesticides were misused at the farm after interviewing seven workers. Officials decided to head back to the farm for more information after reviewing a year’s worth of pesticide use records.

“The last thing we want to do is not look at anything available and not ask the right questions,” Rackley said. “It also doesn’t mean that we might not find something that needs to be dealt with.”

He said the agency was unable to speak with the two women who were alleged to have been exposed to pesticides.

Rackley did say they spoke to the husband of one of the women who may have been involved.

The man told them the woman had a tubal pregnancy and lost the baby after going to the hospital.

“He had never seen his wife or him exposed to pesticides illegally,” he said.

The Collier health department closed its investigation Tuesday after finding no evidence workers were exposed.

The probe stemmed from an anonymous complaint lodged with the agriculture department and information from Adan Labra, an Immokalee organizer with The Farmworker Association of Florida.

Labra said he did talk to the other woman allegedly involved and she had a normal birth of twins.

He said the woman hadn’t been working at the farm for seven months.

The organizer said workers were interviewed at the farm and may have been fearful to talk freely.

“It’s very difficult for the workers to talk at their workplace,” he said. “No one wanted to talk when the inspector came.”

Rackley anticipates the investigation to close next week.