By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- Pesticide applicators have better tools and techniques for controlling drift, but incident reporting may be a lingering problem, legislators were told at a recent hearing.
Graciela Barragan, one of 47 people who filed claims after a 2008 incident in Mattawa, Wash., told legislators, "We didn't report because of the fear."
Barbara Morrissey, with the state Department of Health, said her agency investigates suspected cases, "but doctors are not very good at reporting."
Two House committees -- Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Labor and Workforce Development -- invited stakeholders to a joint work session July 17. Speaking were representatives from state agencies, farmworker advocates and agricultural spokesmen.
Rep. Judy Warnick said the two case studies presented, the incident in Mattawa and another in Royal City in 2010, are both in her district.
"I'm concerned they're not reporting. I would like to have been contacted," she said.
Fear of retaliation keeps farmworkers quiet, Andrea Schmitt of Columbia Legal Services said. When they did speak up at Mattawa, a Washington State Department of Agriculture investigation found insufficient evidence and no action was taken, she said.
"The WSDA didn't give weight to the testimony of four dozen people," Schmitt said. In the Royal City incident, "the fine didn't alleviate the victims' concerns."
Ted Maxwell, head of the WSDA pesticide office, said anyone can file a complaint, and every complaint is investigated. Violations are determined by hard evidence, and "the department has the burden of proof," he said. "The standard is 'a preponderance of evidence,' meaning more likely than not."
In the Royal City case, the pesticide applicator was fined $4,500 and his license was suspended 70 days.
In reviewing the investigations, Maxwell said he found both were thorough.
Heather Hansen, with the Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, said applicators now have more sophisticated equipment, including Global Positioning System and Global Information System. Drift incidents are rare in part because aerial applicators average 27 years of experience, she said.
Speaking for the Washington State Horticultural Association, Jim Halstrom contrasted the number of drift incidents with the number of applications.
Washington orchards see 2,863,000 acre-applications a year.
"The record is very, very good," he said, "but incidents are not to be dismissed."
New orchard practices also help. The incorporation of trellises in orchard plantings allows the use of tower sprayers, which are less prone to create drift.
Still, Halstrom said, despite the best efforts of applicators and agencies, "Drift sometimes cannot be avoided."
Rep. Brian Blake, chairman of the House ag committee, said a tour of the incident sites last year invited members of the Labor and Environment committees, but not his. He has no legislation in mind, he said, but the work session was called to give legislators more insight into worker safety programs.
Legislation last year that addressed prior notification of pesticide application "didn't move very far," Blake said. "And the buffers proposed in the past were way over the top.
"Any of us who work around ag chemicals, we have to be careful how we use these," he said. "But I don't believe they're as dangerous as some would have us believe."
As for problems with reporting, he said, "That was asserted, but I don't know that it was established."