Moorhead, Minn. — It was a warm summer day. Five migrant farm workers were hoeing weeds in a sugarbeet field near Crookston. Griselda Lopez remembers it was mid-morning when an airplane started spraying the field. State and federal laws prohibit spraying pesticides while workers are in a field. Griselda Lopez says the plane flew right over them.
"The big cloud of pesticide was just on top of us. It was just fumigating us totally. It covered our bodies," says Lopez. "We started yelling and jumping so the guy could see us -- and he never stopped, so we started running to the truck."
Lopez says the five workers were sick by the time they reached the edge of the field.
It had a real strong odor, and when you would smell it, it would burn in your nose. Our skin was wet. The pesticide went through our shirts and pants. My son continued vomiting all through the following day. We all had stomach aches, and our red eyes didn't get better until days later.
"My son was vomiting by that time and so was I," says Lopez. "It had a real strong odor, and when you would smell it, it would burn in your nose. Our skin was wet. The pesticide went through our shirts and pants. My son continued vomiting all through the following day. We all had stomach aches, and our red eyes didn't get better until days later."
The Lopez family went to a local clinic, where they explained what had happened. A doctor told them the symptoms were likely from the flu, or a cold. That's not unusual. Experts who study pesticide exposures say doctors routinely miss pesticide poisoning. The effects of a pesticide often mimic common symptoms of the flu or asthma. Many doctors are not well trained to look for pesticide exposure.
Later that day, Griselda Lopez says she called the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. That's the only state agency which monitors pesticide sales, use and misuse. Lopez was told to put the family's clothing in garbage bags. An Ag Department investigator came the next day and collected the shirts, pants and shoes. Department lab tests found no pesticide residue on the clothes.
Lopez says she tried for several months to find out about the investigation. She says repeated calls to the Ag Department were not returned.
"It made me feel like instead of protecting us, they were working against us. I felt I wasn't represented at all," says Lopez. "We were the victims, and they wanted us to feel like we were the bad guys."
The Lopez family was sprayed in 1993. They returned to Texas, where Griselda Lopez is now a social worker. Their case remained open at the Ag Department for seven years. In 2000, the case was closed. The Ag Department said the statute of limitations had run out.
The Lopez family sued the crop duster who sprayed them, and they reached an out of court settlement. But the lawsuit raised serious questions about the Ag Department's investigation.
According to an internal Ag Department memo, the crop duster violated state and federal law. In the memo, an investigation supervisor wondered if the obvious violation of law should be pursued. But the case remained closed.
In a legal deposition, Environmental Response and Enforcement Manager Paul Liemandt could offer no explanation for the seven-year delay in handling the case. But in a recent interview, he explained the case "fell through the cracks." Liemandt says the enforcement process is now fixed and he insists all allegations of pesticide misuse are taken seriously.
"And certainly if there are animals or humans involved, where adverse affects have been reported and confirmed, there would be significantly greater penalty associated with that type of action," says Liemandt.
But in the Lopez case, the Ag Department issued no fines or penalties of any kind. Nothing happened to the farmer who admitted spraying the field where the Lopez family was working. Family members had symptoms of pesticide poisoning. But the Ag Department found no pesticide residue on clothes worn by the workers that day. Attorneys were puzzled, until they found an explanation in Ag Department records.
The Ag Department lab tested for the wrong pesticide. It appears the lab tested for the pesticide Pencap. Records show Pencap was sprayed on another field nearby, apparently in compliance with all pesticide laws. Records show the pesticide Poast was sprayed on the field where the Lopez family was working.
David Thompson is a Grand Forks attorney who represented the Lopez family. Thompson says he considered suing the Ag Department for failing to uphold the law.
"These particular investigations were non-aggressive, incomplete. There was almost a hostility displayed toward the migrant laborers who I represented. It was almost that they had the audacity to complain that they'd been sprayed with these toxic substances, and they'd suffered illness and injury as a result," says Thompson.