GAINESVILLE — Federal regulators are looking into whether Florida failed to properly investigate if farmworkers sickened in a crop-dusting accident were told not to report it to authorities.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inspectors are reviewing case files from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services related to the October 2014 accident in Belle Glade, EPA spokesman Nick Conger said Wednesday.
The action comes after an investigation by the Associated Press last month showed that officials here and in other states rarely penalize farms for violating chemical-exposure limits.
Based on a review of federal and state enforcement data, the investigation found that pesticide safety investigations in the United States can take years to complete and rarely result in fines. Most cases end with warning letters.
In Florida, the nation's second-largest agricultural state with 47,000 farms, and most other states, enforcement of the safety laws is conducted by the same agencies that promote the farm industry.
The agriculture industry says the number of fines issued is low because farms are doing a good job of protecting workers.
In the Florida case, dozens of farmworkers, mostly women, were exposed to Bathyroid XL when a crop duster mistakenly sprayed the agent near them while they were working. Bathyroid XL is a "restricted use" pesticide considered by the EPA to be one of the most toxic. At least 13 were sickened, including a pregnant woman, according to a state health report.
The workers told a state health investigator that an official from the farm came to the hospital after their exposure and told them they would have a hard time finding work if they reported the case. Such intimidation is prohibited under the federal rules.
But the investigator assigned to the case never followed up on the intimidation allegations, according to case files. Florida's investigation of the accident took a year, and the agriculture department issued no fine to the farm and only a small fine to the crop dusting company.
Division of Agricultural Environmental Services director Andy Rackley confirmed in a statement Wednesday that his agency had sent files to the EPA and was cooperating with its review.
No one from Duda Farms, which owned the land where the accident occurred, discouraged or threatened workers after the accident, said spokeswoman Donna Duda. Neither did anyone from the farm labor contractor Martinez & Sons Trucking, said the company's farm supervisor, Jose Ojeda.
People who work with farmworkers on pesticide exposure safety say the protection system is riddled with problems.
"There needs to be trust that (Florida) is doing everything possible to ensure that the workers are working in safe working conditions," said Jeannie Economos of the Farmworker Association of Florida. "Anti-retaliation is one of the things we advocated for in the new (pesticide safety law), and it is key if workers are going to be able to report pesticide violations and/or pesticide exposures."
President Barack Obama's administration last year adopted tougher farmworker protections despite resistance from the agriculture and chemical industries. When they take effect in 2017, however, they will still rely on the existing enforcement system.
Conger said the law states that if the EPA determines that Florida's response was inadequate, the federal agency can require officials to take corrective action, strip the state of its authority to run the program or take over the case.