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Washington State Fires Ag Inspector for Protecting Public from Toxic Pesticides

September 14, 2004, Issue #370
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
>From a Public Interest Perspective

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HAL BERNTON, SEATTLE TIMES: Driving the back roads east of this orchard
town, state pesticide inspector David Zamora spotted trouble on a warm
summer morning: a plume of bug spray drifting from pears trees to a place it
wasn't supposed to go - a nearby orchard of sun-ripened cherries.

Zamora stopped and plucked some of the cherries. Laboratory analysis
confirmed his suspicions. They bore traces of the spray, prompting state
officials to place a rare quarantine on the crop. Rather than go to market,
$70,000 in cherries was left to rot last summer.

This would be one of the last investigations in Zamora's tumultuous five
years as a state Department of Agriculture inspector. During that time, he
tackled dozens of cases involving sprays that drifted onto people, school
grounds --- or, in the case of cherries --- the wrong crop.

His hard-nosed approach repeatedly incurred the wrath of growers, who tagged
him as a crusader, a man who overstated risks, jumped to conclusions and
sometimes entered private property without proper permission. His actions
even provoked several threats of bodily harm.

Spurred by grower complaints, Zamora's bosses last fall hired a private
investigator to check his performance, while placing him in a new job away
from the fields and orchards. No allegations of misconduct were ever
substantiated by the investigation. But rather than vindicating him, the
state Department of Agriculture --- citing concerns about Zamora's safety
--- has declined to let him return to his old job.

A warning sign is posted in an orchard recently sprayed with a
pesticide.Zamora's troubled tenure provides a window into the state's
efforts to safeguard human health and the environment as farm chemicals are
sprayed in the spring and summer across Washington's farmlands.

In recent years, these lands have annually produced more than $3 billion
worth of products. The Department of Agriculture is responsible under state
law to assist farmers in moving those crops into global markets.

The state agency also is responsible for enforcing federal pesticide
regulations. The agency has 13 inspectors who annually may tackle more than
200 investigations and also get involved in inspections and other work.

For farmers, the timely use of chemical sprays can mean the difference
between a banner year or a bust. And many farmers have been riled by state
Department of Agriculture fines, which come from an agency they think should
be more of an ally.

Their concerns prompted the Legislature in 1995 to pass a law requiring
"letters of correction" rather than fines for many first-time violators.

The legislation reflected the cooperative relationship that farmers sought
with pesticide regulators. And the complaints against Zamora reflect, at
least in part, fears that he was undermining that relationship.

A state investigation documented that spray from the orchard in which this
photo was taken drifted onto a running track being used by Wenatchee-area
middle-school students in 2001. One of the students, Elena Dominguez, was
rushed to the hospital. A road between the orchard and playfield is not
visible in this photo because of tall grass."

The Department of Agriculture wants to have a good working relationship with
the farmers, and maybe they are in a little bit of a bind because they do
have to regulate the industry," said state Rep. Mike Armstrong,
Rep.-Wenatchee. "But they have always tried to do that in a positive matter.
And we saw that slipping away [with Zamora]. That's what concerned us."

David Mathison of Stemilt Management, which tends orchards across Eastern
Washington and joined in the campaign against Zamora, said: "We were out to
make a statement that they [the Department of Agriculture] need to be
helpful to growers. They need to have an educational approach instead of an
enforcement, FBI-undercover-kind-of-guy-looking-through-the-bushes

But farmworker advocates and environmental groups repeatedly have faulted
the agency for failing to do more to protect human health, fish and

A 1998 audit by the Environmental Protection Agency found those concerns had
merit. The audit concluded that the state did not always thoroughly
investigate complaints of illegal spray affecting human health; some
investigations appeared to be prematurely terminated; and enforcement
actions were on the decline as the agency often "favored technical
assistance" over fines. The audit also contained a list of recommended
actions to improve enforcement.

Zamora, 54, went to work for the agency a few months after the audit. Over
time, he came to share the concerns about lackluster enforcement, telling
his bosses the agency didn't do enough to protect schoolchildren,
farmworkers and others from spray drift.

Zamora's efforts helped boost the agency's yearly enforcement actions. In
1998, the department issued nine violation notices and $10,310 in fines. By
2002, the latest year for which annual statistics have been compiled, the
agency issued more than 50 violation notices and more than $50,000 in fines.

Zamora summarized his approach to his job in testimony before the state
House Government Affairs Committee in 2002: "I don't have a problem with
pesticides," said Zamora, who is now under orders by his bosses not to talk
with the press. "I do have a problem with pesticides that are not used
safely and legally. And that has been the whole theme of my effort in the
job that I do. To promote their safe and legal use."

Elena Dominguez watches as her mom, Cindy Dominguez, sifts through papers
concerning Elena's exposure to pesticide. Cindy Dominguez has filed notice
of intent to sue Wenatchee schools.Environmental and farmworker groups are
frustrated by his agency's refusal to keep him in the field.

"This raises serious questions about whether the agency is up to doing the
job," said Carol Dansereau of the Seattle-based Farm Worker Pesticide

Zamora's job transfer also has been monitored by the Washington chapter of
the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Washington
Public Employees Association.

"The input I have received from fellow inspectors --- they were devastated,"
said Lyle Loncosty, an official at the state workers union. "The perception
was that ... if you got yourself crossways with the growers --- even if you
are 100 percent right --- don't rely on the agency to give you backing."

Earlier this year, Zamora --- through a nomination process from colleagues
--- earned recognition as one of 50 "employees of the year" among the
department's more than 600 full-and part-time employees.

State agriculture officials say their decision to transfer Zamora does not
mean they're backing down on enforcement.

"We are aware that those perceptions are out there ... that we caved in,"
said Agriculture Department assistant director Bob Arrington. "I don't agree
with those perceptions. But I can't make them go away."

When Zamora landed at the Agriculture Department, his résumé offered no hint
of a man bent on rocking the boat. Raised in Eastern Oregon, where
pesticides are a part of farm life, Zamora later earned a doctorate in plant
science from the University of Idaho. He worked for American Cyanamid, a
major pesticide manufacturer, and then as an extension specialist for
Montana State University before taking his state position in Wenatchee.

The irrigated orchards in and around Wenatchee help produce a statewide
apple crop topping $1 billion. Increasingly, though, farmers have new
neighbors: Housing tracts, schools, retirement homes and day-care centers
are encroaching on orchard land.

And in recent years, as growers have struggled amid global competition, the
orchards across the state have shrunk from a 1999 peak of 172,000 acres to
164,000 acres in 2002.

During the growing season, orchards are sprayed repeatedly. Two classes of
nerve poisons --- organophosphates and carbamates --- are often used to kill
insects that can otherwise devastate crops.

These chemicals break down rapidly, but recent studies show that traces of
them are found in the urine of farmworkers and their children. And there is
increasing concern about the effects of chronic low-level exposure on
children and the unborn. The insecticides are typically applied by air-blast
sprayers, which are towed behind a tractor and use powerful fans to kick up
plumes of toxic mist, which may drift for hundreds of feet.

State law makes it illegal for such drift to come in contact with humans.
But no buffer is required between orchards and development to prevent such
contact, and there's no law requiring farmers to alert neighbors before

At County Castle Day Care Center in Wenatchee, for example, orchards begin
less than 100 feet from the children's play area. So on spray days, the
day-care providers keep children inside, shutting windows and turning off
air conditioners.

"But we realize that is part of living in the Wenatchee Valley," said
Jennifer Peters, who works at the center. "I grew up around the orchards,
and I'm used to all this. We have to make compromises." A survey Zamora
undertook in 2000 found that nearly 40 schools in Chelan, Douglas, Grant and
Okanogan counties are within 100 feet of orchard and cropland. And over the
past half-decade, the state has investigated at least a half-dozen cases of
drift onto school grounds.

Zamora's son attended one of those schools, Wenatchee's Sunnyslope
Elementary. Its playground is about 60 feet from an orchard's edge. On March
20, 2000, pesticides drifted onto the playground, with Zamora's son
reporting he felt mist on his arms, according to state records.

Zamora arrived at the school that afternoon, detecting a strong pesticide
odor and taking swab and grass samples in the play area. An analysis
indicated it was the organophosphate chlorpyrifos. Zamora asked Mark Goveia,
the principal, to file a complaint, a move that would trigger a state
investigation. Goveia refused.

In a later interview, Goveia said he had no personal knowledge of the drift,
and "at that time, I didn't feel like it was my responsibility to issue the

So, Zamora, acting as a private citizen, filed a complaint to his own
department. The subsequent investigation, conducted by Zamora's colleague Ed
Von Grey, documented drift of the chlorpyrifos.

A year later, another investigation by Von Grey documented drift of another
organophosphate, Guthion, from an apple orchard onto a running track in use
at the time by Wenatchee-area middle-school students.

Sixth-grader Elena Dominguez was rushed to the hospital in what state health
officials classify as a "probable" case of pesticide exposure.

"She was in stupor, in and out of consciousness," said Elena's mother, Cindy
Dominguez, who has filed a notice of intent to sue the Wenatchee School
District. "I said, 'Elena, talk to me,' and her eyes would roll back, and
her head would fall backward."

Her daughter since has recovered.

The two incidents spurred Zamora to try to improve the school defenses
against pesticide drift. Agency officials did not consider this work to be
part of Zamora's job description. So Zamora launched his campaign as a
private citizen. But without the backing of his agency, Zamora found himself
on a one-man campaign that made school officials uneasy.

Zamora was able to persuade the Wenatchee School District to plant a border
of poplar trees at Sunnyslope Elementary to help catch drift, but he failed
to get it to use sampling kits to monitor for pesticides.

"The monitoring is something that we need direction on how we should do it
from the state level," said Brian Flones, Wenatchee School District
superintendent. "The Department of Ag --- we need to follow their lead."

The tipping point came during the 2003 growing season as Zamora tackled the
cherry drift and a second controversial investigation involving pesticide
drift from one crop to another, where the sprays were not authorized.

The investigations posed big risks to growers, since they could result not
only in fines but state-ordered quarantines, such as the 2003 order that
barred the cherries from market.

That action prompted the grower --- John Riedel --- to recently file a civil
lawsuit that names the state Department of Agriculture and Zamora as

The second drift investigation involved Stemilt Management, the large
Wenatchee-based orchard operator that prides itself on minimal use of
pesticides and markets its fruit under a "responsible choice" label.

The chemical the company had used was a low-toxicity alternative to
organophosphates, but it was not certified for use on cherry trees. During
the investigation, Stemilt alleged --- among other things --- that Zamora
entered its property without permission and then took samples "in clear
violation of department policy," according to a Washington Farm Bureau
complaint sent to the state as part of a broader listing of complaints
against the inspector.

"It is unfortunate that we are again dealing with the over-zealous behavior
of one Washington state Department of Agriculture employee who is generating
a high degree of frustration, fear and anger among growers," state Sen.
Linda Evans Parlette, Rep.-Wenatchee, wrote in a July 16 letter to the

"The smaller growers have been under considerable financial pressure for the
past several years. When these people's livelihoods are held at risk, some
very strong feelings rise to the surface immediately!"

By September, state officials had suspended Zamora from his inspection beat.
They then hired G/T Investigations of Spokane to review his actions. The
company conducted more than 50 interviews in compiling a report.

State officials said that investigation turned up insufficient evidence to
substantiate any misconduct on the part of Zamora, according to a December
31, 2003, letter by Agriculture Department assistant director Arrington to
the Washington Farm Bureau.

But Arrington said the report, which the state has declined to publicly
release, did identify an area of departmental procedure that "needs
clarification and guidance." That area --- known as right of entry ---
covered the sensitive topic of how inspectors entered onto private land.
And, after the letter, the Washington Farm Bureau worked with state
officials to "clean up that policy," according to Dean Boyer, a Farm Bureau

Under the new policy, inspectors must not only ask for consent to enter
private property but also inform all landowners that they have a right to
refuse their entry. If denied, inspectors can then go to court to gain a
warrant, but the policy says such authority will be used only under "unusual
circumstances," language that has concerned farmworker advocates. But
Arrington says inspectors will not back off enforcement and will seek the
court warrants if needed to gain entry.

This year, the state's inspection efforts have continued without Zamora.
Though still based in Wenatchee, he now helps schools comply with a 2002
state law that requires that parents be informed before any pesticide
spraying by school staff members of grounds or buildings.

However, the law does not require growers near schools or day-care centers
to provide any such warning before they spray nearby crops.

Arrington says the new assignment is important, and that Zamora is doing an
excellent job. [ August 31, 2004 ]