The state is investigating a new allegation that tomato grower Ag-Mart failed to protect its workers from pesticides.
The company, which farms about 1,100 acres in North Carolina, already faces the state's largest fine for 369 pesticide violations. State health officials are studying whether pesticide exposure is to blame for birth defects in three severely deformed babies born to Ag-Mart workers.
Now, a worker claims that his supervisors refused him protective gear last week while he was working with methyl bromide, a gas that kills organisms in the soil and can have serious health effects for people who are overexposed. State pesticide officials said they are investigating.
"He was being exposed to something, and his face was burning," said Carol Brooke, an attorney for the N.C. Justice Center, which advocates for the poor and represents some Ag-Mart employees.
The worker called Brooke, and she complained to the state Department of Agriculture's pesticide section. Brooke said the worker wants to remain anonymous.
Pat Jones, pesticide enforcement manager, said an inspector visited one of the company's two farms in Brunswick and Pender counties Wednesday. Jones would not say whether any new violations were found because the case is under investigation.
The brand of methyl bromide that Ag-Mart typically uses, MBC Soil Fumigant, requires that workers use a face shield or a respirator when working with the chemical.
Ag-Mart spokesman Leo Bottary said the complaint comes as a surprise. He said Ag-Mart has a hot line for workers to report problems -- and hasn't heard anything from North Carolina workers this year.
The North Carolina growing season has not yet begun for Ag-Mart, a Florida company that also grows tomatoes in Florida, New Jersey and Mexico. Brooke said only a handful of employees are in North Carolina preparing fields for the planting of grape tomatoes.
The company sells its tiny tomatoes under the brand name "Santa Sweets." It also packages tomatoes for several major grocery chains.
The company is still trying to settle the violations for which the state Agriculture Department handed out a fine in October. On Tuesday, the state Pesticide Board took an unusual step and sent the case to the Office of Administrative Hearings. An administrative law judge will hear the evidence and make a recommendation to the board.
The board, composed of volunteers appointed by the governor, will make the final decision on the company's punishment.
Board members said they aren't qualified to sort through days' worth of legal evidence. State law allows them to send the case to a judge.
"All the details have got to be right," said board member Benson Kirkman. Trying to handle the hearing "would've been sort of like walking through a minefield with shoes that are 3 feet long," Kirkman said.
State pesticide inspectors took six months to build the case against Ag-Mart. They interviewed workers and sorted through reams of records and employee work schedules.
According to the October violation notice, the company failed to properly train workers who handled pesticides. It didn't supply workers with proper safety equipment and didn't have adequate water for them to rinse their eyes.
The company applied one of its most dangerous pesticides more than three times as often as law allows, the notice said. And it allowed employees to work in freshly sprayed fields that weren't safe to re-enter for up to two days, the notice said.
The notice also says the company was burning empty pesticide containers beside a field, a violation of state law.
The $184,500 fine was a landmark for a department that typically fines farmers who violate pesticide laws less than $1,000.
Ag-Mart officials have said that state inspectors misinterpreted company records. The company says it never sent workers back into treated fields before the law allowed.
Ag-Mart spokesman Bottary said the company welcomes an impartial hearing. "We obviously feel very confident about our position," he said Tuesday.
The company's Raleigh attorney, Mark Ash, said Ag-Mart has not given up on negotiating a settlement, which is how most pesticide violations are handled.
But after months of unsuccessful negotiations, some Pesticide Board members said the time for a settlement has passed.
"It's beyond that," said board Chairman Scott Whitford after Tuesday's meeting. "We're going to court now."
Board members said they knew nothing about the new allegations against Ag-Mart.
Staff writer Kristin Collins can be reached at 829-4881 or email@example.com.