Investigations

Farmworkers fell ill after alleged pesticide exposure. ‘It’s going to keep happening’

‘If you’re a worker, they’re not interested in you.’

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They all remember the yellow plane flying fast and low over the hops field. The farmworkers, more than two dozen of them, had been working in the Obendorf Hop field in Parma since 6 a.m., as they had been for the last two weeks. A few were near the edge of the field, preparing “donuts” of twine outside a trailer for the others to use as they worked.

No one, not even their supervisors or the labor contractor they worked for, knew the onion field across the road was scheduled to be sprayed. And no one warned them to leave before it was too late.

“When the plane went up above us, we could smell what it dropped,” said Ascención Antunez, 77. “It went up our noses.”

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How we did this story

This story is based on roughly 500 pages of public records and interviews with more than 15 people, conducted in both English and Spanish. Reporter Nicole Foy filed public record requests and reviewed records from agencies in three different states, including the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, the Oregon State Department of Agriculture, the Nevada State Department of Agriculture, the Idaho Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Idaho Industrial Commission and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Foy also interviewed several of the farmworkers who say they were in the field that day, comparing their stories with the statements they provided state investigators and reviewing medical bills and medication receipts.

Several of the farmworkers involved in a Memorial Day incident that sent more than a dozen workers to Treasure Valley emergency rooms for suspected pesticide exposure are speaking out for the first time.

Five of the farmworkers who were in the field that day told the Statesman that they believe state officials have failed in their charge to protect workers. But their complaint may be with federal law, which allows crop dusters to spray some pesticides when people are at least 100 feet away. The law doesn’t always require companies to warn surrounding farms.

State agriculture officials were unable to conclusively determine the source of the workers’ sickness, but sent a regulatory letter to a crop-duster pilot, who workers say accidentally sprayed them with a fungicide. The pilot had never received an Idaho citation, but the letter was only the most recent complaint against the crop-duster company over a 20-year history across three separate owners, according to records reviewed by the Statesman.

It hasn’t been possible for anyone to verify that the workers were sickened by the chemicals, because of a lack of lab testing. A national crop-duster association argues the problems stem from hysteria and misunderstanding of pesticide application.

One of the workers showed the Statesman medical bills that he attributes to being sprayed with chemicals. At least two said they were still sick as late as September.

George Parker, Idaho’s representative on the National Agricultural Aviation Association’s board of directors, reviewed portions of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture’s investigation case file at the Statesman’s request. He said weather data and GPS data from the plane show the pilot not only shut off his spray well short of the lengths of the field he was supposed to be spraying, but also that the workers were upwind at the time of the application.

“He was extra safety conscious — he shut off even shorter than the edge of the field,” Parker told the Statesman. “Were they drifted on? No, they weren’t drifted on. They were upwind of the application site, and it is physically impossible for them to be drifted on.”

Idaho State Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Chanel Tewalt said this was one reason the original regulatory letter to the pilot was “specifically tailored” and the agency has spoken “judiciously” about this case.

“We have never said the agency has ruled in or ruled out exposure,” Tewalt said. “What we can do as an agency is look at the evidence.”

Southwest District Health officials told state investigators on June 26 that 12 of the 13 farmworkers displayed symptoms that could have been caused by copper sulfate exposure or a “very minor exposure” to an organophosphate.

Typically, people exposed to a copper-based fungicide like Badge SC — which is not an organophospate — experience skin and eye irritation, according to a July 10 health assessment for the investigation conducted by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. It could also cause coughing and soreness of the throat or lungs.

“Direct ingestion of copper compounds may cause more severe nausea or vomiting, but typically this would not be expected at doses associated with incidental ingestion of pesticide spray drift,” wrote Morgan Willming, a toxicologist and health assessor in a letter to the state agriculture investigators.

But one worker, Maria Catalan of Marsing, said she and other people around her were dizzy and vomiting after they left the field. Her husband, Santos Armenta, said he still had head pain and was coughing up blood months after the incident.

José Ramirez, also a Marsing resident, said he and other workers standing near a trailer were closest to the field being sprayed — and among the most seriously affected. Ramirez was able to drive home to the Marsing Housing Authority, but said he felt tired and had blurred vision. He fell asleep until his supervisor called him to report to the emergency room. Although he said he wasn’t hospitalized like other workers were, he said he missed a week of work. He showed the Statesman dozens of bills he’s been receiving for the emergency room visit and medication.

Ramirez said he was just glad the pesticide hit him and not his wife and sons, 16 and 19, who were on the other side of the field.

“I don’t want this to happen to other families,” Ramirez said. “If you can see a solution so that this won’t happen again, please do it. Do it, because if you don’t respond strongly, it’s going to keep happening — always, always and over again.”

Antunez, the 77-year-old worker, said he was unable to walk or get out of bed for about a month after the incident, and his family came from out of state to care for him. The Statesman interviewed Antunez on Sept. 15. Marsing Housing Authority staff told the Statesman he returned to the hospital that same week but couldn’t say what caused it. Because of patient privacy, the Statesman was unable to verify Antunez’s current medical status by time of publication.

A system with limited oversight, little accountability

Advocates and community members have also expressed concern that a disorganized system with toothless penalties for offenses allowed the farmworkers to be exposed in the first place, and that no one seems to have been held accountable.

The hop field was outside the zone in which EPA Worker Protection Standard rules allow pesticide applicators to spray. Since 2015, the rules have forbidden crop dusters from spraying certain pesticides within 100 feet of any people. The farmworkers allegedly the most impacted, according to state investigator case notes, were working near a trailer close to the road that separates the onion and hop fields while the rest of the workers were farther away.

“The onion field neighboring the hops field is located directly east, across a road,” state investigators note in the original report. “The ISDA measured the distance from the eastern edge of the road to the eastern edge of the hops to be 82 feet.”

Before taking off in a plane to spray Badge SC fungicide on a field, Valley Air pilot José Pérez was only required to coordinate with the farmers who hired him, Brock and Phillip Obendorf of Obendorf Farms. Although the state issued him a regulatory letter for “negligent” pesticide application — because he could have chosen not to spray while workers were in the area — Pérez appeared to follow federal and state regulations. If wind and weather conditions are favorable, there is no law banning crop dusters like Perez from spraying Badge SC that close to workers without prior notification.

Farmers are usually only responsible for notifying their own workers that a pesticide will be sprayed in the field they are working, state officials said. Some pesticides also require newspaper notifications or field postings — notifying workers where pesticides are going to be applied or if it is still unsafe to enter the field — but Badge SC, the fungicide sprayed by the crop duster, doesn’t have that requirement. According to state investigator notes, Obendorf Farms co-owner Phillip Obendorf didn’t intend to have workers in the onion fields at the time and did not know that workers would be in the neighboring hops field, either.

Obendorf Hops farm manager Orlando Razo told investigators the workers who said they were sprayed had been working in the same field for the previous two weeks.

“I asked (Phillip Obendorf) why he did not notify his Farm Manager about the application and he said he did not do it because he knew there would not be any workers on those fields,” state investigator Luis Urias wrote in his case notes. “I also asked him about the farmworkers on the hop field and he said that the field does not belong to him, it belongs to his father (Greg Obendorf); therefore, he was not required to notify them about the pesticide application.”

That is true, according to statements provided to state agriculture investigators by Phillip, Brock and Greg Obendorf, as well as Secretary of State business filings. Obendorf Farms — the onion field intended to be sprayed by the crop duster — is owned by Phillip and Brock Obendorf. The Obendorf Hop field across the road is owned by their father, Greg Obendorf.

But documents on file with the U.S. Department of Labor indicate the companies may not always operate so independently.

In addition to hiring farmworkers through labor contractors like Corral Ag Labor, both Obendorf Farms and Obendorf Hops employ Mexican nationals on H-2A temporary agricultural visas. Obendorf Farms began construction on a housing complex for a few hundred H-2A workers in 2018, according to an Idaho Press report.

Federal regulations require employers to submit detailed applications each time they request permission to bring in workers on this special visa. Obendorf Hop lists a home on 24034 Batt Corner Road, Parma, as the company’s address on H-2A applications — the same address listed in Secretary of State business filings for Brock and Phillip Obendorf Farms.

A Statesman review of H-2A visa applications for both Obendorf Farms and Obendorf Hop requests also found that Brock Obendorf — co-owner of Obendorf Farms — signed as the “owner/manager” of Obendorf Hops on every application for H-2A workers on file for the 2019 season. Phillip Obendorf signed as the “owner/manager” of Brock and Phillip Obendorf Farms on that company’s applications.

The Statesman reached out to Obendorf Farms and Obendorf Hop several times prior to publication. In a written statement sent to the Statesman at 2:30 p.m. the Friday before publication, Obendorf Hop attorney Julie Fischer reiterated that the businesses are separate entities with separate ownership and management, although the names “can create confusion.”

“Although Brock Obendorf is the Vice President of OBH (Obendorf Hop), that farm is operated independently of BPO (Brock and Phillip Obendorf Farms), which business is managed by Phillip Obendorf,” Fischer wrote. “The applicator was not contracted by OBH and the product was not applied to an OBH field. It is of great concern to OBH that people working in its field reported illness, however, OBH did not fail to comply with any applicable safety rules or regulations nor has it been cited by any regulatory agency for non-compliance.”

When asked if the Idaho State Department of Agriculture thought it was in the spirit of the law to conclude Obendorf Farms had no responsibility to notify workers across the road of a coming pesticide spray, Tewalt said there is always a duty to apply pesticides according to label requirements and in a “safe and careful manner” regardless of ownership.

While the initial investigation did not cite Obendorf Farms, investigators found that Obendorf Hops was not following a piece of the Worker Protection Standard. During interviews with farmworkers about the pesticide incident, state investigators learned Obendorf Hops had not provided decontamination supplies like soap, water or hand towels.

Those should have been available because Obendorf Hops had applied insecticide Sulfur 80 WDG, fungicide Flint Extra, and fungicide Quintec on the field 24 hours before, the investigators found. Obendorf Hops was not cited or fined for this violation of the Worker Protection Standard.

In the statement provided Friday, Fischer implied the labor contractor Corral Ag Labor was responsible for providing the decontamination supplies. She also said the May 26 incident prompted improved communications among their companies’ management teams, although “neither BPO nor OBH violated any safety protocol.”

The farmers have a record of at least four worker-safety violations. U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration records show Brock and Phillip Obendorf Farms was fined $15,500 for three serious worker protections violations stemming from an October 2018 incident involving worker safety around farm equipment, and fined $800 for a worker fall in February 2011.

“OBH respects and values the people who perform work on its farm and appreciates the contribution of all workers,” Fischer wrote. “OBH regrets any event where people are injured or become sick, and both OBH and BPO are dedicated to ensuring safe working conditions for all persons, employees or not.”

Roberto Corral, the owner of Corral Ag Labor, the labor contractor that directly employed the farmworkers, told the Statesman his team had no idea a crop duster was scheduled to spray nearby. He didn’t know why his former employee, José Ramirez, would be receiving medical bills for the incident, although he wasn’t able to say whether workers compensation claims were filed for Ramirez or the others who went to the hospital.

Idaho Department of Labor records show Corral Ag Labor incurred several apparent violations the last five years, mostly for not providing sufficient or clean bathroom facilities for their workers. Four different employees also filed unpaid wage claims against the contractor during the same time period.

Corral said that as an agricultural labor contractor, it can be hard to “keep track of” all the workers he employs — even the ones in involved in a pesticide exposure case.

“They’re still working,” Corral told the Statesman when asked about workers compensation claims. “I don’t know if all of them got filed ... most of them are still working. I see most of them that were with that crew.”

Were the workers poisoned? Nobody knows

State investigators couldn’t find a lab to conclusively test for copper-based Badge SC, the pesticide sprayed by the crop duster.

A rainstorm passed through the area before investigators were able to take soil samples, and it likely washed away the spots of the pesticide’s distinctive pale blue color, which responding Caldwell Fire personnel described dotting one of the workers’ vehicles.

Most of the patients taken to a Caldwell hospital exhibited the nausea, dizziness and headaches that could have been caused by Badge SC, a Southwest District Health review found, but the most severely ill patients reacted like someone would to an organophosphate, a highly toxic type of insecticide. Only half of the roughly 25 to 30 workers in the field at the time even reported to the hospital as requested, for reasons investigator could not determine.

“The Department of Agriculture is not doing enough to regulate (worker safety issues),” said Samantha Guerrero, a community organizer with Visión 2C, a new Canyon County chapter of Idaho Organization Resource Council that will focus on worker safety and other issues. “We want to be able to prevent this in the future. This incident could have been avoided, and it could have been worse. Even the reaction to the incident was just a slap on the wrist. Nothing changed. What is being done to regulate this or stop it from happening again?”

Tewalt said pesticide application is already a heavily regulated industry.

“We know that at any time the policy can be changed, but that is a role for policy makers,” Tewalt said. “Within the arena of policy making, there is always the opportunity to evaluate things and make changes to policies.”

‘No one did anything’

Six weeks after the May incident, Ramirez claims it almost happened again. A plane flew low, close to where he and his family worked, he told the Statesman. Panicked, he yelled at everyone to run. The workers gathered far away and watched as the plane sprayed. Ramirez snapped photos of the plane, then left the job with his family, not wanting to risk it happening again. He now works for an onion grower in western Canyon County.

Cropduster plane
Jose Ramirez took this July 10 photo of a cropduster plane after he said it almost sprayed near where he and his crew were working. He originally posted this photo to Facebook describing the incident, then shared the original photo with the Statesman. Courtesy of Jose Ramirez

“Two days ago, this plane again passed over the boundaries ...” Ramirez wrote in Spanish on July 12, when he posted one of the photos he took on Facebook. “No one did anything. The man from the state said it’s okay, it’s nothing ... If I do something I want a good lawyer.”

Advocates like Guerrero from the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils, as well as other community members, said it was important for the state and Idaho’s agricultural industry to take steps to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.

“We’re not saying there needs to be more regulation or changes in laws or statutes,” said Cimberlie Christiansen, the pesticide compliance manager for the Marsing Agricultural Labor Sponsoring Committee. “But when you unequivocally do something negligent, man up and correct some of the situations and help the people who were injured.”

Crop-duster company had complaints in two states

Roughly 20 different aerial applicator companies operate in Idaho, according to an estimate from the Idaho Agricultural Aviation Association. There’s no exact number because the Idaho State Department of Agriculture only tracks and regulates individuals licensed as pesticide applicators. Crop-duster companies also aren’t required to be a member of associations like the Idaho Agricultural Aviation Association or the Pacific Northwest Association of Aerial Applicators.

State agricultural investigators said they couldn’t prove the crop-duster pilot, José Pérez, was responsible for the farmworkers getting sick. Instead, they concluded he violated Idaho Code by applying pesticides in a “faulty, careless or negligent manner.”

Pérez didn’t have any previous violations in Idaho — something investigators can take into account when deciding the severity of the punishment. Because of his clean record and the state’s inability to conclusively identify a toxic exposure, Pérez was only required to respond to a sternly worded regulatory letter. The letter was filed in his permanent record. No fines were levied on him or his employer, Valley Air LLC.

While the pilot had no previous violations of EPA pesticide regulations or Idaho Code, state records reveal Caldwell-based Valley Air has a history of pesticide exposure complaints in Idaho and Oregon.

The Statesman reached out to Valley Air staff and owner Justin Kearns several times for this story, but did not receive a response. Kearns and Pérez previously declined to provide comment to the Statesman for an Aug. 15 story about the same incident.

Parker, Idaho’s representative on the National Agricultural Aviation Association’s board of directors, said the Idaho State Department of Agriculture overstepped.

“Why is the ISDA sending letters of reprimand and crucifying people when there is no evidence of any wrongdoing?” Parker, who owns Crop Jet Aviation in Gooding, told the Statesman. “It is all unfounded BS that is maligning an entire industry in a state ... that is being urbanized at a rapid rate, while we still try to feed the world.”

Parker said industry representatives planned to meet with the agriculture department to discuss their displeasure over the way the case was handled.

Aerial applicator company Valley Air operates in Idaho, Oregon and Nevada, according to the company website. The company has only been operating in Nevada since January 2019 and has received no complaints, according to the Nevada Department of Agriculture.

Records from the Oregon State Department of Agriculture show three complaints filed against Valley Air pilots since 2013, although only one was ruled a violation. A Valley Air pilot received a Notice of Violation in May 2014 when a pesticide he was spraying on a grass seed field in Line County, Oregon, drifted onto a car just off Interstate 5, according to enforcement records obtained by the Statesman. The pilot was not fined, nor was his license revoked.

Valley Air’s history in Idaho is far more varied. Eight different Valley Air pilots were involved in at least 13 different pesticide exposure allegations since 2002, according to records from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. Some cases were closed after an investigation, others resulted in thousands of dollars of fines and lawsuits. According to state records:

  • In 2016, a former Valley Air pilot sprayed a Star corn field with bird shield, a pesticide meant to repel birds, and the insecticide comite that allegedly drifted onto a mother and child standing outside their home.
  • In 2010, another former Valley Air pilot accidentally sprayed a car in Nampa.
  • In 2004, another former Valley Air pilot received a $500 fine after spraying a pesticide that drifted, hospitalizing a Burley woman and drawing complaints from several nearby residents. His license was suspended for four days, and he was placed on probation for a year.

Most notably, a former Valley Air pilot was involved the last time a large group of Idaho farmworkers were exposed to a pesticide. Twenty-nine farmworkers got sick in a Caldwell onion field in 2005.

The pilot, Frank Amen, was fined because he “did not provide prior notification to Arroway Farms Inc. before the fields were to be sprayed with pesticides so Arroway Farms Inc. could notify the Marsing workers to stay out of the treated fields,” according to the Notice of Violation.

State investigators and the Idaho Attorney General’s Office fined nearly everyone involved in that incident, including Amen, the farmers who owned the field and the labor contractor, Marsing Ag Labor. The crop-duster company, then called Valley Air Service and run by Gary Hubler, was also fined $12,000.

‘There’s got to be accountability’

Luke Ankeny, the labor manager for the Marsing Agricultural Labor Sponsoring Committee, said many remember the 2005 pesticide exposure that injured so many workers. Although he wasn’t working for the committee at the time, he said the event pushed the company to be extra careful with pesticide and worker safety protocols.

That’s why he and pesticide compliance manager Christiansen were following this year’s pesticide investigation closely. The committee, which operates as a labor contractor for a group of partner farmers, is based out of an office at the Marsing Housing Authority, which Ankeny also runs.

So when José Ramirez walked into the housing authority office, asking for advice on finding a loan to cover medication and understanding the medical bills he was receiving, Ankeny and Christiansen were alarmed and angry. They soon learned that several of the workers involved in the pesticide incident lived at the Marsing Housing Authority, including Antunez, Ramirez and his family, and Catalan and Armenta.

“Somebody has to be held accountable,” Ankeny told the Statesman during an August interview. “I could care less what the report says. Bottom line, you’re not going to stick a field worker making less than 12 bucks an hour with medical bills for something that they didn’t do.”

Ankeny and Christiansen said they have been doing their best to help the farmworkers, which includes checking in on Antunez’s medical status and recent hospital visits. Both expressed concern that the workers — at least the ones they knew — seemed to have slipped through the cracks.

Ramirez himself thought that was due to a lack of interest on the part of state officials.

“If you’re a worker, they’re not interested in you,” Ramirez said.

When Ankeny learned that Armenta and Catalan had missed significant work time because of their illnesses, he quietly paid a portion of their rent himself.

“It’s being human,” Ankeny said. “From a human-to-human level, what kind of treatment would I want if I was in that situation?”

Dunnia Aplicano, the state farmworker advocate for the Idaho Department of Labor, said she is available as a resource and liaison for farmworkers. Her job is to ensure that farmworkers have access to services and protections.

“The complaint system is available to anyone who wants to file a complaint because they feel like their rights are being violated at work, they have not been paid wages, they do not feel safe, or they feel like their health has been compromised at work,” she said. “They can definitely file a complaint with us.”

Aplicano said the complaint system is available to any farmworker, regardless of immigration status. Complaints can also be made anonymously, Aplicano said, or when the farmworker isn’t sure which agency they should send it to. Workers who need help can also call Aplicano at 208-332-3570 ext. 3135.

“Our complaint system is like a door to accessing any other agency, because we do follow up with agencies and we direct the complaint or the complainant to the correct agency,” Aplicano said.

Ramirez said all he wants is for state officials to “do their part” and protect farmworkers like his family and friends.

“If I do my job, I want them to do their jobs — to defend us and everyone who needs it,” Ramirez said. “I say this because I am a person who wants everything to be just ... We aren’t asking for anything else.”

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Investigative reporter Nicole Foy covers Latinos, agriculture and government accountability issues. She graduated from Biola University and previously worked for the Idaho Press and the Orange County Register. Her Hispanic affairs beat reporting won first place in the 2018 Associated Press regional awards. Ella habla español.
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