Farmworkers who have been poisoned by chemicals drifting from fields are coming out in support of the Pesticide Safety Enforcement Act, expected to go before the Agriculture Committee on Wednesday.
"Farmers need to know that when (pesticides) drift on somebody ... they will be fined, there will be consequences," said Teresa DeAnda, who had to pile three children, two uncles and two dogs into a van in 1999 to escape the cloud of toxic chemicals that wafted over her hometown of Earlimart, sickening 250 people.
Wilbur-Ellis, the company found liable, settled with the state Department of Pesticide Regulation for $150,000.
But farmworkers and clean-air advocates said most pesticide drift investigations result in little more than a warning.
Fines are assessed only in the most public cases, in which dozens or hundreds of people are harmed, said Martha Guzman, legislative advocate for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
And farmworkers said most pesticide drift accidents aren't even reported.
"Our head hurts, and our nose bleeds sometimes, but we put that to the exhaustion from work, or the heat," said Sandra Garcia, who has been sprayed several times in the 25 years she's been picking fruit in the Central Valley, composed of the nation's highest-grossing farm counties.
Now Garcia has asthma and said she feels her lungs closing when she approaches vines that have been recently sprayed.
The current language in Senate Bill 879, authored by Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Norwalk, calls for pesticide drift investigations to be completed in two months unless the state explains the delay.
It also would make fines mandatory when a pesticide violation threatens someone's health, and it creates a process for victims to appeal a decision by a local agricultural commissioner to the state's pesticide regulation agency.
The measures would create a financial incentive for farmers and applicators who are often "in a hurry to do a lot of acreage" to be more careful, DeAnda said.
"They get sloppy sometimes," she said. "If they're looking at a big fine, it might prevent that sloppiness."
Several farm industry groups, including the Nisei Farmers League, the Western Growers Association and the Wine Institute, did not immediately return telephone calls for comment.
A spokeswoman with the Western Plant Health Association, a trade group representing the fertilizer and crop protection industry, declined to comment on the bill.
Avoiding injuries after drift incidents often means doing things that cost farmers and applicators money, like waiting for workers to clear out of a nearby field before spraying.
Lax enforcement "puts law-abiding agricultural and pest control businesses at an unfair disadvantage," Escutia said.
Sprayed pesticides can easily be blown off course, exposing anyone downwind.
In 2002, residents in the small Kern County town of Arvin were exposed twice to drifting pesticides. The company at fault in the first instance, Wilbur-Ellis, was fined $15,000. A month later, chemicals again drifted into town, sickening 252 residents. That applicator, Western Farm Service, was fined $60,000.
In October 2003, pesticides sickened more than 130 people in Lamont. In May 2005, 19 workers near Bakersfield were overcome by a pesticide cloud from a neighboring field.
That accident is still being investigated.
Flora Bautista was taking care of her five children and her nephew a 5-month-old baby when the 2003 pesticide drift happened in Lamont.
The stench made her family choke and their eyes water.
Since then, Bautista said, the baby has suffered from respiratory tract infections, asthma, pneumonia and other lung diseases. "No one is listening to us," Bautista said. "Why so many accidents?"
Farmworkers hope this bill will change the culture in rural areas, tightening enforcement of existing laws and making any drift incident punishable by a fine.
"We know farmers have to take care of their fruit," Garcia said. "We don't want them to lose money either we need those jobs. We just want there to be safe ways of doing things."