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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on April 24th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 7 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 7

Catch my drift?

Locals believe clouds of pesticides made them ill, but the accused are all saying there's no case

BY RYAN MILLER

The Arreola family smelled something bad, like rotten eggs.

Since they lived in Santa Maria’s St. Marie Mobile Home Park near strawberry and broccoli fields—literally feet away, in fact—they worried about chemicals, like pesticides, being applied to fruits and vegetables growing so close to their home. They noticed odd smells at odd times.

Alejandra Arreola later told investigators that her family suffered from irritated eyes, sore throats, headaches, nausea, runny noses, and other respiratory issues after the smells materialized. She reported seeing white clouds billowing from tractors, prompting everyone to run inside and shut the windows. Jesus Arreola, her husband, said his heart started beating rapidly and he broke into a sweat after he noticed a chemical odor and saw a tractor trundle past his bedroom window.

They believed pesticides were wafting into their home, making them sick. So they complained to the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner’s office.

What happened next is a bit of a confusing tangle that ultimately prompted the Arreolas, working with attorney John L. Simonson of Tarzana-based Spear Law Firm, to file a legal complaint in December 2012 against Reiter Berry Farms, Innovative Produce, and Santa Barbara County. They’ve also listed 25 John or Jane Does to be filled in as discovery continues.

According to the complaint, the Arreolas allege Reiter and Innovative “engaged in heavy and frequent pesticide and herbicide spraying of their respective fields, creating traveling clouds of pesticide mist called ‘pesticide drift.’” The family is seeking damages on a variety of causes of action: four against the farms and one against the county, which the family believes failed to properly protect them from the alleged exposure.

In late March 2011, the complaint reads, the Arreolas made a formal complaint of “pesticide exposure/misuse” to the county agricultural commissioner’s office. Since the office decided to investigate, they argue, it created a duty to “exercise due care in the undertaking of that investigation.” While the county did run an investigation—which it termed a response to an “odor complaint”—and coordinated a meeting between the family, county officials, and farmers, the Arreolas feel the action failed to resolve anything. In fact, all of that made them feel worse about their situation.

In May 2011, they filed a complaint with the Department of Pesticide Regulation, alleging the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner’s staff ran a lackluster investigation. A subsequent department investigation found that the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner’s office response to the Arreolas’ complaints was inadequate and inconsistent with department protocol.

The department’s investigation report notes that the commission staff failed to collect field samples to address potential pesticide drift during the investigation, with no explanation for not doing so; that staffers relied on phone conversations with the farms to determine pesticide application history and failed to verify whether applications took place during times when discrepancies were found on Reiter Berry Farm’s monthly use-reporting records; that staffers never conducted a follow-up inspection at Reiter after discovering pesticide-use reporting violations during the investigation; and that the commissioner’s office didn’t assess Alejandra Arreola’s allegations that more people in the mobile home park were showing similar symptoms.

A representative from the Department of Pesticide Regulation explained in an e-mail to the Sun that such reports are used to identify deficiencies in a County Agricultural Commissioner Pesticide Use Enforcement Program, and the department then works with the office to correct the issues by offering training and working with staffers to “improve their knowledge and skill.”

The Department of Pesticide Regulation investigator also stated in the report that he “was unable to determine that any singular incident met the criteria for a U.S. EPA Priority Episode.” Such an episode is any event that involves “a violation of the pesticide use provisions of the [Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act], potential or actual illness, damage, harm, loss, or contamination alleged as resulting from the use or presence of a pesticide.” A priority investigation impacting human health must appear to cause death, serious illness (as in hospital admission), or injury or illness to five or more people from a single pesticide episode.

The Arreolas report in their complaint against the farms and the county that they tried to sell their house in spring 2012, but because of the depressed market, they had to walk away from eight years of mortgage payments.

They now live in a rental in Santa Maria, it reads, “away from any farming operations.”

Attorney Simonson also said that two of the Arreolas’ children, younger than 10 years old, have been diagnosed with bronchial asthma.

Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Fisher referred questions to county counsel. Sarah A. McElhinney, deputy county counsel for Santa Barbara County, said she couldn’t comment on the complaint except to confirm that the county is challenging it by arguing that it has immunity.

A demurrer dated April 9, 2013, shows that the county is arguing that the plaintiffs “fail to state facts sufficient to state a cause of action.” The filing goes on to list several reasons behind its demurrer, including the county’s belief that the Arreolas failed to allege a mandatory duty on the county’s part, and that the county can essentially claim governmental immunity against suits.

The filing also refers to the Arreolas’ complaint as “layers of speculation.”

Reiter and Innovative both denied the allegations and causes of action in the complaint and filed cross complaints, which would potentially shift or spread around any liability should it be found.

A company representative from Reiter didn’t return a request for comment. Neither did Elizabeth St. John, attorney for Reiter.

Fred Krakauer, attorney for Innovative, declined to comment.

According to court documents, Reiter anticipated its own fact discovery process wrapping up in November, with expert discovery finishing by February 2014.

Simonson, the Arreolas’ attorney, explained that it wouldn’t be unusual for a potential trial date to be set a year from now. But first, there’s a case management conference set for May 15, at which Judge Timothy Staffel is expected to hear the county’s demurrer and the Arreolas’ response. Simonson theorized that the parties might be sent into court-ordered mediation, but emphasized that if this complaint goes to trial, they’d be looking at starting sometime next year.

Contact Executive Editor Ryan Miller at rmiller@santamariasun.com.