A recent court decision found a Lodi-based crop duster liable in multiple pesticide use violations that resulted in a series of pesticide drift incidents impacting children, communities and crops in San Joaquin and Sacramento counties.
The significant ruling by San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Barbara Kronlund’s earlier this month on the consolidated civil actions filed by the California Attorney General, San Joaquin County District Attorney and the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) found Alpine Helicopter Services (Alpine) and several of its pilots responsible for 41 total violations in five separate pesticide drift incidents in San Joaquin and Sacramento counties.
Pesticide drift refers to the movement of a pesticide away from the intended target, which is illegal in California. In this case, the court found that careless aerial applications by Alpine led to drift incidents involving an elementary school in Lodi; an active sports complex in Stockton; a property in a small community located in Sacramento County; and thousands of acres of cropland in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The court decision underscores the critical investigative work of the San Joaquin County and Sacramento County Agricultural Commissioners’ Offices and their collaboration with DPR, the San Joaquin District Attorney and the Deputy Attorney General Division on the Environment to rigorously enforce pesticide use laws and regulations and hold violators accountable to protect human health and the environment.
“The diligent, on-the-ground investigative work of the San Joaquin and Sacramento County Agricultural Commissioners was a foundational element to support the court’s ruling against Alpine for its dangerous pesticide use violations,” said DPR acting Chief Deputy Director Karen Morrison. “It is vital to the health of California communities that all pesticide use violators are held accountable for egregious violations and carelessness in the handling and application of pesticides in California. Alpine blatantly ignored the many regulations and rules that are in place to protect human health and the environment during the application of pesticides. We are grateful for the investigations of the County Agricultural Commissioners and enforcement actions taken by the California Attorney General and the San Joaquin District Attorney together with DPR to address these serious violations and advance our collective work to enforce pesticide use laws and regulations to protect the health and environment of our communities.”
Pesticide use enforcement is a shared responsibility between state and local authorities. DPR oversees statewide enforcement of pesticide use; develops regulations to control pesticide use; and performs food residue and product compliance inspections. County Agricultural Commissioners and their combined staff of approximately 450 inspectors and biologists operate across California’s 58 counties to promote compliance through outreach and education efforts; perform pesticide use inspections and investigations; and conduct local enforcement activities to address pesticide use violations.
“The partnership between commissioners and DPR to ensure strict enforcement of pesticide use laws and regulations is vital to protect human health and the environment,” said Tim Pelican, whose office investigated four out of the five pesticide drift incidents.
San Joaquin County Incidents
In an average year, the San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office receives just two calls about crop losses related to pesticide-drift incidents.
In May 2014, the department was inundated with 139 crop-loss calls in close succession, all near Bouldin Island in the San Joaquin delta.
“This was a highly concerning volume and triggered a much larger investigation into why this pesticide exposure was occurring and what other impacts it would have on our community and agricultural industry,” said Pelican.
Investigators from the San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office determined the reports were all connected to Alpine, the helicopter crop dusting service used in the area.
“Investigating an incident like this is complex. It involves hours of talking with witnesses, researching laws and regulations surrounding a specific pesticide’s use, weather conditions and other factors,” Pelican explained.
Chief among the findings, the company’s pilots were spraying herbicides in high-wind and adverse temperature conditions, causing the pesticides to drift far off target.
According to court filings, the drift impacted a nearby residential community and impacted crops up to 39 miles away. The economic damage to one field alone was estimated at $1.6 million, according to a legal complaint.
“Defendants failed to exercise reasonable care during the Bouldin Island pesticide applications in reckless disregard of the consequences,” Judge Barbara A. Kronlund wrote in her recent decision.
The San Joaquin County District Attorney prosecuted the 2014 case, which was later consolidated with actions involving three other San Joaquin County incidents and an additional incident in Sacramento County.
One involved Turner Academy, a public elementary school in Lodi.
In April 2017, an applicator from Alpine was spraying pesticides on a neighboring walnut orchard. The pesticides applied – one of which was a pesticide that can cause eye damage - were later discovered by school staff on school buildings, grass fields, playground equipment, picnic benches and sidewalks. The complaint for this incident was also prosecuted by the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office.
Two other San Joaquin County incidents, both in 2019, involved a sports complex in Stockton, located off Highway 99 and Arch Road.
The first incident occurred on Sept. 7 when parents attending a youth soccer game later reported that a pesticide sprayed from a helicopter drifted onto a field where the game was in progress. This incident resulted in several reports of pesticide illness.
County Agricultural Commissioner investigators determined the pilot had sprayed a nearby pumpkin field; that the application happened in the morning as people were gathering for the games; and that a parent had earlier complained to the neighboring airport about the application potentially adversely impacting nearly 200 children and other community members attending the sporting events.
For days, investigators continued looking into the case when, on Sept. 17, an inspector directly observed evidence of pesticide drift on the grounds of the Sports Complex and on a personal vehicle, which had occurred during an ongoing pesticide application.
“We do not tolerate drift or careless applications of pesticides that pose a potential risk to our community,” said Pelican.
Sacramento County Incident
On the morning of Saturday, July 4, 2020, Sacramento County’s Agricultural Commissioner received a call regarding a possible drift incident at a property in Isleton, a town of about 800 people located in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The resident reported to the commissioner that a helicopter applying pesticides onto a nearby farm had sprayed the pesticide on to her property – with some of the pesticide even landing on her person.
The commissioner involved a county investigator who took immediate action at 7 a.m. on the holiday weekend to go to the incident site; gather information about permits; talk to representatives from Alpine; collect statements, clothing and plant samples and send these samples to the lab for testing to assess for evidence of pesticide drift and exposure.
“This investigation required an admirable amount of effort and resourcefulness by our investigator,” said Sacramento Agricultural Commissioner Chris Flores, who received the initial call that Saturday morning. “We take reported incidents of pesticide exposure and pesticide drift incredibly seriously. The work of our team is critical. This case showed the importance of our work, our availability and our ongoing communication with the communities we serve to advance our role to protect human health and ensure careless applicators of pesticides are held accountable.”
The straw hat worn by the resident who first reported the incident and a plastic tote that was in the area confirmed the presence of pesticide residue consistent with the chemical being sprayed that weekend by Alpine, according to a legal complaint.
Ultimately, Alpine and several employees were accused of operating “in a faulty, careless, and/or negligent manner” among other violations under pesticide law and regulations, according to the original legal complaint filed by DPR in 2020. The court subsequently granted a preliminary injunction against Alpine which imposes additional safety measures on pesticide applications made during the pendency of the case. Judge Kronlund’s decision found liability as to each drift incident alleged in the complaint. Litigation to determine penalties is ongoing.
The California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s mission is to protect human health and the environment by fostering safer and sustainable pest management practices and operating a robust regulatory system to monitor and manage the sale and use of pesticides across the state. DPR’s work includes registering all pesticides sold or used in California, conducting scientific evaluation of pesticides to assess and mitigate potential harm to human health or the environment, monitoring for pesticides in the air and water, and enforcing pesticide regulations in coordination with 55 County Agriculture Commissioners and their 400 field inspectors. DPR also conducts outreach to ensure pesticide workers, farmworkers and local communities have access to safety information. DPR invests in innovative research to encourage the development and adoption of integrated pest management tools and practices. More information about DPR can be found at www.cdpr.ca.gov.