Raleigh, N.C. — The North Carolina Pesticide Board on Wednesday unanimously voted to settle a long-standing case involving a Florida tomato grower blamed for using pesticides that led to birth defects in several workers’ children.
"It spares North Carolina taxpayers a lengthy court battle, and we still get our ultimate goal, which is compliance," Brian Long, a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said of the seven-member panel's decision.
The state began investigating Ag-Mart Produce Inc. in 2004 after several workers on farms in Brunswick and Pender counties gave birth to babies with deformities.
Workers testified at hearings in 2008 that the company's regional manager, Jeff Oxley, forced them back in the fields too soon after pesticides were sprayed. In some cases, plants were still wet, they said.
The North Carolina Pesticide Board ultimately found Oxley guilty of 48 violations of state pesticide regulations. It ordered that his pesticide applicator license be revoked for two years and that he also be fined $24,000 in civil penalties.
Ag-Mart appealed the decision to Superior Court in Wake County, but the court has yet to take up the appeal.
Attorneys for the Department of Agriculture and Ag-Mart spent nearly a year negotiating a settlement, in which Ag-Mart will pay $24,000 to settle the violations and an additional $1,000 for a violation in 2006.
Ag-Mart will also fund a training program for farm workers and drop its legal appeals, and Oxley will keep his pesticide applicator's license.
The state also agrees to issue a public statement that Ag-Mart has had no pesticide violations since 2006.
"We're pleased to conclude this matter, which recognizes Ag-Mart's compliance with state pesticide law," Ag-Mart's attorney, Mitch Armbruster, said.
The case prompted then-Gov. Mike Easley in 2008 to appoint a task force to look into the issue of farm worker exposure to pesticides.
Several new pesticide record-keeping rules went into effect May 1, as a result of that task force. They involve recording the ending time of pesticide applications, recording of daily applications and how long growers must maintain records.