Off-target pesticide service douses neighboring properties, people

"Who would choose to run their business with such callous disregard for the safety of our children and families?"

Published December 12, 2020 1:40AM (EST)

Agricultural worker spraying his crops (Getty Images)
Agricultural worker spraying his crops (Getty Images)

This story was produced by FairWarning, a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer, labor and environmental issues. You can sign up for their newsletter here.

Angela Mancuso had just dropped off her kids at Glenwood Elementary School when she started to smell something "funky." She was driving back to her home just a mile away in Stockton, Calif., and decided to roll down her window for some fresh air. 

She noticed too late that a helicopter applying pesticide to a nearby walnut grove that Tuesday morning in September 2016 kept flying back and forth across the road, spraying continuously.

"It got me really good," Mancuso told FairWarning. 

In recent years, Alpine Helicopter Service has been implicated in at least eleven incidents of pesticide spray landing off target on people or properties in California's Central Valley, according to records and interviews. Now it's the target of a lawsuit filed in October by the state attorney general on behalf of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. 

"Time and time again, Alpine Helicopter Service and its pilots knowingly endangered the health and safety of innocent communities," Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. "Who would choose to run their business with such callous disregard for the safety of our children and families nearby? Our health and safety laws are serious business. So, too, should be the consequences for violating them."

The suit, filed in San Joaquin County Superior Court, seeks civil penalties for the three most recent alleged pesticide drift incidents involving Alpine—two in 2019, and one in 2020. In 2019, pesticide twice drifted onto the San Joaquin County Regional Sports Complex—including a day when children were playing soccer there, according to the complaint. In the 2020 incident, the lawsuit says the pesticide landed on a woman and her goats, poultry, rabbits and vegetable garden in her backyard in Isleton. 

Alpine Helicopter Service did not respond to requests for comment. The company has been granted an extension until December 18 to respond to the complaint, an Attorney General spokesperson told FairWarning. 

The Alpine incidents appear to be an extreme example of a common problem. In California alone, the state has tracked more than 2,000 pesticide drift cases—both on farms and in other settings—that caused harm over a period of 25 years. Spokesperson Abbott Dutton said the pesticides department has occasionally referred cases to the attorney general, but the vast majority of enforcement is done at the county level.  

Pesticide drift—movement of the chemical mist away from the intended target area—occurs to some extent in all pesticide applications. Up to 70 million pounds of pesticide blow onto unintended targets each year, according to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

The EPA registers pesticides for legal use, laying out guidelines for safe application in detail on the label—including drift precautions. Pesticide applicators are supposed to carefully monitor weather, wind and other conditions to prevent extensive drift that could harm people, plants and animals nearby. States can adopt additional restrictions on the labels, but most don't.

In 2017, pesticide drift became a national controversy when the EPA approved herbicide dicamba for use on Monsanto-designed soybeans and cotton resistant to its poison. When it drifted onto conventional crops, millions of acres were damaged across 25 states, triggering a flood of private litigation. Amidst the uproar, a farm hand shot and killed an Arkansas farmer who accused him of using dicamba and damaging his crops. The farm hand was convicted of second-degree murder.

In November, the California pesticide regulators filed a separate action to consider revoking or suspending the licenses and certifications of Alpine Helicopter Service, its president Joel Dozhier and two of its pilots, Charles Heppe and William Heppe—all named in the state's lawsuit. All three men and the business itself have held licenses and certifications for years, even as complaints against them mounted. 

Asked why the licenses hadn't been suspended earlier Dutton said that the misconduct hadn't "risen to the level of needing to take this step" until now. 

Alpine, which operates out of Lodi, Calif., was first registered as a business by Dozhier in 1980. It mostly serves growers in and around San Joaquin, Sacramento, and Stanislaus counties, in the middle of the state's fertile Central Valley, where 40 percent of the country's produce is grown. In 2004, a Charles Heppe faced $60,000 in fines when the pesticide he sprayed by helicopter over a potato field drifted onto farmworkers in a neighboring peach orchard. Some of the workers lost consciousness and 13 were hospitalized, according to news reports at the time. 

Back in 2016, when Alpine sprayed Angela Mancuso, enough fell on her car that, "I remember I was turning on my wipers," she said. And because her window was open, the pesticide also landed on her face and arm. She said it wasn't painful, but soon she developed a headache that lasted for days. Her husband, a grower of wine grapes who uses pesticides himself, encouraged her to call the office of the San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner, which handles local pesticide complaints. She reported to the county biologist that her eye was twitching and felt tight. The pesticide, later found to be Ethephon 2, is used to ripen fruits like cantaloupes and blackberries. It can also cause permanent eye damage.

Mancuso eventually fully recovered. Meanwhile, the county issued Alpine a $500 fine. 

An organic farm in San Joaquin County, Delta Blue Blueberries, got sprayed by Alpine in April 2014, leading to the loss of its entire crop that year. Weeks later, Delta Blue claimed it was hit again by another Alpine spraying on nearby Bouldin Island in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. That event, known locally as the Bouldin Island Drift Incident, led to five people reporting health symptoms and 139 claims of crop damage as far as 39 miles away, according to the attorney general. Delta Blue settled with Alpine for $300,000 over the April incident. 

"You could write a book on what we went through," said John Glick, who owns Delta Blue Blueberries. 

In April 2017, pesticide sprayed by Alpine over a walnut orchard in Lodi drifted onto the playground and picnic tables of Turner Academy, a school for first through eighth grade children with behavioral issues, according to court documents. In November that year, with state officials citing 50 cases of pesticide-related illnesses on school campuses since 2005, California banned the application of some pesticides within a quarter mile of schools and daycare centers from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on school days. The new statewide rule was the first of its kind.

In its database tracking pesticide drift, the pesticides department lists 2,145 incidents that made bystanders ill between 1992, the first year of available data, and 2017, the most recent. In 2017, 482 people got sick from agricultural pesticide exposure—two thirds of them farmworkers, according to state data. 

Ángel García, an organizing director with Californians for Pesticide Reform, works in farmworker communities in and around Lindsay, Calif. He said that pesticide drift is such a pervasive problem that his organization is helping to amplify the stories of victims on the site, featuring art by documentary photographer Joan Cusick. 

"Pesticide drift is something that is in a way normalized because it happens so often," he said. "It's like, 'Ok it's that time of the year, we're going to just have to shut our windows and not go outside.'"

One proposed reform is for county agricultural commissioners to post notices on their websites when companies plan to spray especially potent pesticides, Garcia said.   

The pesticides department "is exploring its options in developing a statewide notification system," spokesperson Dutton told FairWarning. 

Jay Feldman, of the advocacy group Beyond Pesticides in Washington, D.C.,  said state regulators slowly ramp up enforcement of repeat violators, from warnings to fines to license suspensions of a week or so. But only "really strict penalties" will stem the sloppy practices, he added. 

Chris Lamke and his wife have lived in the countryside on the edge of Modesto, Calif. for 35 years. Though they've always had big farms as neighbors, they became victims of drift for the first time in the spring of 2016, when Alpine applied pesticide to rice fields across the road. One day, Lamke came outside to see his yard covered in a granular substance, with large patches of the grass turned bleach-white. 

"I've experienced lawns dying and they get more of a yellow," he told FairWarning. "This was white, it really stood out." 

The couple ended up pulling out their extensive gardens, including organic vegetable beds and half a dozen lemon and tangerine trees. They filed a lawsuit against the rice grower and Alpine, which ended with an undisclosed settlement. 

"I just assumed it was an accident," Lamke said. "When you start seeing it repeating like that…you think they would have been a little more careful."

By Alexandra Tempus

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California Fairwarning Pesticide Pesticide Drift Public Health Reporting