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State links citrus canker to ex-inspector

A state-employed citrus canker inspector may have sparked the latest outbreak of Asiatic canker in a Lake Placid grove, an agriculture official said Thursday. Federal and state investigators are examining whether a former canker inspector who had been exposed to A-strain canker in 1985 infected a small group of citrus trees next to his home. That small grove may have infected the adjacent commercial groves owned by Smoak Groves Inc., said Richard Gaskalla, director of the state's division of plant and industry.

Gaskalla made his announcement during a citrus canker task force meeting at Lake Alfred.

Last week, agriculture officials said at least 214 of the Smoak Groves trees bore citrus canker. It was the first such outbreak in recent years, except for some parts of Manatee County, which as of January still showed small infestations.

Canker is a disease that creates lesions on trees, bark, leaves and fruit. It bears no risk to consumers, but usually the fruit is too unsightly to sell.

The A-strain is particularly contagious in that it can be carried in the wind, on farm equipment and on people's clothing.

In the mid-1980s the state forced the destruction of millions of citrus trees throughout Florida for what officials thought was rampant canker, but it turned out to be a harmless leaf-marring disease. Late last month, the Florida Supreme Court denied citrus growers the right to sue for damages in that canker scare. The ruling upheld the legality of a $30-million compensation program set up by the state, a program many growers consider inadequate.

Since the mid-1980s scare, citrus inspectors have inspected groves periodically for signs of an outbreak.

Canker inspectors are trained to spray their clothes and equipment with an antibacterial disinfectant upon leaving each grove, said Ken Bailey, state regulatory director of the Citrus Canker Project. Inspectors also routinely inspect each other's commercial or dooryard groves.

Gaskalla did not disclose the name of the inspector who may have indirectly infected the Smoak grove.

Ed Smoak, owner of Smoak Groves, said investigators told him Gene Maupin, employed by the state in 1985, was the inspector.

Maupin died in June.

He had worked for the state's Citrus Project a short time and apparently was exposed to the A-strain while inspecting some infected dooryard groves in Manatee County in 1985, Smoak said. A dooryard grove is a small group of trees owned by individuals, as opposed to commercial groves.

The inspector, who had a master's in science education and a bachelor's in biology, resigned shortly afterword, following a dispute with superiors, Gaskalla said.

In 1985 and 1986, Maupin apparently rented a house with 10 to 12 citrus trees within 600 feet of the land that now encompasses part of Smoak's groves. The dooryard grove contracted canker sometime before Smoak bought the land nearby in 1988.

Smoak said he planted his trees in March 1989. By then, canker on the dooryard grove was well advanced and eventually spread to Smoak's larger grove, state officials said.

State officials say they don't exactly know how or why the inspector carried the infection home.

"The bottom line was, was it an accidental spread (of canker) on the individual inspector or was it, by some remote possibility, an intentional move?," Bailey asked. "It's still under investigation."

Gaskalla said he believes it is "highly unlikely" the infection was accidental. The agent of infection had to be in direct contact with the trees to infect them, he said.

Gaskalla said a number of factors, including the position of machinery in the grove, led him to believe the infection came directly from the inspector.

Meanwhile, Smoak said he plans to start burning his infected groves today, beginning with the 214 infected trees and spanning out to eventually include 40,000 uninfected trees. He will lose 40 percent of the 400-acre block of groves, he said.

Smoak owns seven blocks of groves, totaling 2,400 acres. He said he has not calculated his financial loss.