Health Care

Board will hear Ag-Mart laborers

State officials will hear for the first time this week from people who have worked in the fields for tomato grower Ag-Mart.

After three years of legal maneuvering, the state Pesticide Board started a hearing Tuesday on charges that the Florida company, which runs a large farm in Brunswick County, exposed its workers to toxic pesticides. The hearing will continue today.

The board is expected to hear testimony from former Ag-Mart field worker Francisca Herrera, who bore a son in December 2004 with no arms or legs.

In March, the company agreed to pay an undisclosed settlement to Herrera, who claimed that pesticide exposure was the cause of her child's birth defects. The company denies responsibility for the birth defects.

The board will also hear from another former worker, Sostenes Salazar, whose baby was born with a deformed jaw. Salazar, however, will testify for Ag-Mart, contending she was never exposed to pesticides while working alongside Herrera.

North Carolina officials began investigating Ag-Mart in April 2005 after hearing of three deformed babies born to Ag-Mart workers within six weeks -- including those of Herrera and Salazar.

In the fall of 2005, state pesticide officials charged Ag-Mart with 369 violations of state pesticide law, touching off the largest pesticide prosecution in state history.

This week's hearing marks the first time that the mothers, or any Ag-Mart field workers, will be heard in the case.

The state has based the case entirely on company work records that show where field hands were picking crops, plus spray records that document where pesticides were applied. When cross-referenced, the records often placed workers in fields before they were safe to re-enter.

Ag-Mart says the work records simply aren't accurate and do not reflect where employees worked.

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