After a day-long hearing, the N.C. Pesticide Board ruled Jan. 8 that it still needs more time to decide the Ag-Mart case, which is becoming more complex with each legal proceeding.
"This record is huge; point us in the right direction," said board member Lisa Corbett, at the end of the meeting.
Prompted by the Environmental Protection Agency, the N.C. Department of Agriculture began investigating Ag-Mart three years ago, after several of its employees in the southeastern part of the state gave birth to severely deformed babies in late 2004 and early 2005. The Florida-based tomato grower contested the fines—$184,500, the largest ever levied by the NCDA, for 369 violations of state pesticide laws—and the case went to the Pesticide Board.
On Jan. 8, the board asked lawyers for Ag-Mart and the state to submit more information; meanwhile, the board will continue to do legal research. The next hearing is Feb. 12.
Ag-Mart has denied accusations it exposed its workers to pesticides.
The board previously referred the case to the Office of Administrative Hearings because members said it was too complicated to handle. Yet after two administrative law hearings, the board is re-reviewing it.
The final decision rests with the board, a seven-member group appointed by the governor.
Two administrative law judges earlier recommended that the board dismiss 17 of the 369 charges and reduce the fine to $6,000. The judges determined the state attorney general's office used flawed company documents, rather than farm workers' testimony, as the backbone of its case.
Mark Ash and Mitch Armbruster, lawyers for Ag-Mart, one of the nation's largest tomato growers, argued that the board should accept the administrative judges' recommendations.
"The facts in this particular matter have been reviewed by two administrative law judges and the same facts were reviewed by an administrative law judge in Florida. And in each case the judges found that the claims were just wrong," Ash said.
However, the state attorney general's office contested the judges' recommendations.
Barry Bloch, assistant attorney general who argued for the state, said Judge Beryl Wade, now retired, should have used board rules, not administrative hearings rules, in making recommendations.
Bloch also objected to the ruling of Judge Joe Webster. "Judge Webster had never appeared before this board or received a case as an administrative law judge. He is perfectly competent as an attorney, but his recommendations on this count demonstrate he does not see the whole picture."
No farm workers attended the hearing, which was largely mired in legal jargon and procedural minutiae.
"The case has become a procedural quagmire, and not one time today did we hear anything about farm workers," said Fawn Pattison, director of the N.C. Agricultural Resources Center. "That's how far we are from the facts of the case."