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Federal environmental regulators have settled claims against a multinational GMO corn grower that exposed dozens of workers on Kauai to a dangerous pesticide in two separate incidents.
Syngenta Hawaii, a local unit of the Swiss giant Syngenta AG, will pay a civil penalty of $150,000 and spend $400,000 on worker protection training sessions for growers under the agreement.
It’s a fraction of the more than $4.8 million the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had announced it was seeking for the 2016 mishap alone, which sent 10 workers to the hospital.
But the EPA on Monday portrayed the outcome as a major victory, the largest settlement imposed under 2015 farmworker safety rules, and a win for communities that would benefit from the safety education programs for farmers.
Alexis Strauss, acting regional administrator for the EPA’s Region 9, acknowledged that the settlement was far less than the maximum allowed under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act and its regulations designed to protect workers.
Strauss said it “would be lovely” if the EPA had been able to impose a higher penalty, but she added, “You don’t get to settle with a company by getting the maximum amount for every violation.”
As described in the EPA’s complaint, the first incident occurred in 2016 when Syngenta sprayed a field of genetically modified corn with a pesticide containing the chemical chlorpyrifos then, sent workers into the field to staple printed bands to the corn stalks. The workers were supposed to either wait 24 hours or put on protective gear before going into the field, but did neither.
According to the complaint, 19 workers went into the contaminated cornfield before the company realized the error. Afterward, those workers were transported in a van with others, and the company decided to decontaminate all 35 of the workers. Ten workers were eventually taken to the hospital, with three held overnight.
According to the EPA, exposure to small amounts of chlorpyrifos can cause tears, sweating, headache, nausea and dizziness, while more serious exposures can cause vomiting, muscle twitching, tremors and weakness. Other effects include diarrhea, blurred vision, convulsions, difficulty in breathing, and paralysis.
Strauss declined to say what effects the Kauai workers suffered. She also did not know if any had filed civil suits against the company.
According to the complaint, the second incident occurred in 2017, when Syngenta sprayed a field with chlorpyrifos but didn’t properly post warnings for five crews comprising 42 employees working in nearby fields. One of the workers came down with symptoms of pesticide exposure, the EPA alleged.
The result of oversights allegedly affecting as many as 77 workers — involving multiple failures to warn, properly post signs and the like — led to a 388-count complaint. With maximum penalties as high as $19,000 per violation, Syngenta faced potentially millions of dollars in fines.
Instead, the company opted for a fine amounting to about $387 per count. It is about 3 percent of the $4.8 million the EPA initially was seeking for the 2016 incident alone.
The Trump administration has come under criticism for lax environmental law enforcement in general and for purportedly reversing an EPA plan to ban chlorpyrifos.
But Strauss, who said she has been with the EPA for 39 years, said the decision to back down from the stiff fine for Syngenta was not the product of politics but rather a desire to reach a conclusion and help communities.
Syngenta could not be reached for comment Monday.
In addition to the fine, the settlement includes a $400,000 payment to be used for 11 worker protection training sessions for growers in Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, Strauss said. Programs will be translated into Mandarin, Korean, Tagalog and Ilocano and posted online for three years.
“This is a big deal for us,” she said.
Hawaii is now considering bills in the state House and Senate to ban chlorpyrifos, as well as a proposal to require farmers to notify the public when they use certain pesticides and to create buffer zones around some schools.