Ag-Mart agrees to pay $25K in fines over worker case

RALEIGH The state settled out of court Wednesday with Ag-Mart Produce, five years after farm workers claimed exposure to pesticides led to birth defects in their children.

One little boy, Carlitos Candelario, who was born without limbs, has become a poster child for the case. His family reached a separate settlement with Ag-Mart back in 2008.

Farm workers had claimed they were forced back into the fields too soon after pesticides were sprayed resulting in deformities in a number of their children.

Ag-Mart Regional Manager Jeffrey Oxley agreed to pay $24,000 for violations on farms in Brunswick and Pender counties in 2004 and 2005. He'll pay another $1,000 for violations in Pender County in 2006.

Oxley will also be on probation for six months, although he will not lose his pesticide applicator's license, which the state had originally wanted.

Along with the penalties, the company has promised to pay for better training for farm workers.

The education program will also be shared with the state in hopes of better educating all North Carolina farmers.

"When you look at the seriousness of this case to say that they're going to get away with $25,000 and they're going to do a public education program, I mean, that's as good as walking away scratch-free for a company this size," Executive Director of Toxic Free NC Fawn Pattison said. "I think it sends the wrong message."

But Pattison feels the terms of the settlement don't go far enough.

"Have the conditions changed that could give rise to something like this happening again, I don't think so," she said. "Hold people accountable when someone is harmed or injured and make sure that that never happens again."

A lawyer representing Ag-Mart says the company has changed its procedures and is glad to have the case behind them.

"We're glad to finally tie up the loose ends with this litigation, put it to rest and move forward," Ag-Mart attorney Mitch Armbru said.

"It's probably the largest pesticide-related civil penalty in state history," Public Affairs Director for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Brian Long said. "That is going to help ensure that growers and their workers are using pesticides correctly and that's ultimately what you want with your regulations, you want compliance."

The state has been keeping a close eye on Ag-Mart since the complaints started and it hasn't found any more violations since 2006.

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