Washington farm cleared by pesticide records, worker accounts

Signs posted at Sarbanand Farms in Sumas, Wash., warn workers to stay out of a field that has been sprayed. An L&I investigation found no pesticide-related violations at the blueberry farm, which has come under fire from activists and is the defendant in a class-action lawsuit.

As Sarbanand Farms came under attack by social-justice activists last year, a Washington investigator reported that there wasn’t evidence to support claims that field hands had been exposed to pesticides, according to Department of Labor and Industries records.

The probe, launched as L&I was also investigating a worker’s death, was finished in February and found no pesticide violations. L&I industrial hygienist Christopher Rossi foreshadowed that conclusion in a Sept. 26 email to a department manager.

“I’m not finding anything so far that’s indicative of a violation,” Rossi wrote to Christian Bannick, regional compliance manager for L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

The records, released in response to a records request by the Capital Press, provide more details on one of three simultaneous L&I investigations conducted at Sarbanand. The Whatcom County, Wash., blueberry farm near the Canadian farm is owned by California brothers Baldev and Kable Munger.

L&I launched the three probes as activists were blaming farm managers for the death of Honesto Silva Ibarra, a Mexican national who was taken away from the farm by ambulance Aug. 2 and died four days later at a hospital.

L&I absolved farm managers of Ibarra’s death in one investigation. Another investigation found hundreds of workers missed one break and were served one meal late. The state and Whatcom County fined the farm $149,800.

The third investigation, the one involving pesticides, received less attention, but was wrapped up with the other two and also alleged harm to farmworkers.

The records released so far by L&I redact key elements, including accident reports for claims for injuries not related to pesticides. The pesticide investigation began with three claims but were eventually narrowed to a complaint filed by a farmworker on Aug. 15. The worker reported that he may come into contact with chemicals and suffered a headache July 15.

It was unknown why the worker, whose name was blacked out in the released records, waited one month to report the incident to the state. By the time the investigation began, he had left the farm and could not be contacted, according to L&I records.

The farm sprayed blueberries July 12 for spotted wing drosophila with the insecticide Entrust SC, according to farm records. The worker said he may have come into contact with chemicals in the field three days later.

Department of Health official Tito Rodriguez helped Rossi interview three farmworkers. Two said they had never smelled pesticides or gotten sick. A third worker said his eyes are irritated by the dust and that he sneezes a lot, but that he had not smelled chemicals, felt nauseous or developed a headache.

“The farm keeps scrupulous records and neither Tito nor I can find anything that would indicate a pesticide exposure from drift or early re-entry,” Rossi wrote in the email.

Before Ibarra died, about 70 other foreign workers with H-2A visas walked out in protest and were fired. Columbia Legal Services and a Seattle law firm have filed a class-action federal lawsuit alleging that hundreds of Sarbanand workers were underfed and bullied, and the ones who staged a one-day strike were illegally dismissed. The company has said it will vigorously defend itself against the suit.

The suit does not blame Sarbanand for Ibarra’s death, nor does it accuse the farm of exposing workers to pesticides.

L&I declined to release records related to its investigation into Ibarra’s death, citing an exemption in Washington’s public records law.

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