Owner of company faces up to $60,000 fine for drift that sent 13 to hospital

By AMY HILVERS, Californian staff writer

Contact: John Mitchell

Bakersfield, CA – November 12, 2004
County sues over pesticide incident

Prosecutors filed a civil lawsuit Friday that alleges a Bakersfield company is responsible for an Arvin pesticide drift that sent 13 farm laborers to the hospital in May.

The owner of Chuck’s Choppers, Charles F. Heppe, faces as much as $60,000
in fines for allegedly violating several food and agricultural and
regulation codes when he applied the pesticide. Heppe declined to talk to a
reporter Friday.

Heppe was piloting the helicopter that sprayed a toxic chemical called
methamidophos on a potato field at Grimmway Farms, according to the lawsuit.

As soon as farmworkers working in a nearby peach orchard at Sand Hill Farms
were exposed to the chemical, they began “coughing, gagging and vomiting,”
the lawsuit said. Two people lost consciousness, and 13 people were taken
to the hospital.

Along with financial penalties, the lawsuit asks a judge to order Heppe to
refrain from applying pesticides in a dangerous manner, Deputy District
Attorney John Mitchell said. Mitchell said the suit is aimed at deterring
companies that apply pesticides in a negligent manner and to protect people
from being exposed by negligent pesticide application.

“These people just went to work on Sunday morning at 6 a.m. and didn’t know there was going to be a pesticide applied in a field next door,” he said.

“We want to enure that when these pesticides are being applied that they
are being applied in accordance with the law and in a safe fashion.”

Mitchell pointed out that any financial penalties ordered in the case will go to pay the victims, due to a recently passed law that forces companies to cover medical expenses for people sickened by pesticide drifts.

Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, who wrote the bill, will be in Earlimart today
to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the Earlimart pesticide drift that prompted the bill. The event will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. at St.
Jude’s Catholic Church.

Pesticide drifts that sicken numerous people aren’t uncommon in the area.

In 1999, 170 people were sickened in Earlimart, just north of the Kern
County line. In June 2002, 137 people were made ill while working in a
vineyard near Arvin. Then in July 2002, more than 250 Arvin residents became ill from a drift incident.

California Department of Pesticide Regulation

California EPA

Kern County California