A San Joaquin County judge on Tuesday found a Lodi-based helicopter company responsible for five illegal pesticide drifts that occurred in the area between 2014 and 2020.
Judge Barbara Kronlund found Alpine Helicopter Service Inc. failed to apply pesticides in accordance with industry standards, and that the company was liable for civil penalties in an amount to be determined during the second phase of the trial, which will begin in July.
“We have a duty to hold accountable those who act with reckless disregard for the safety and health of our community,” San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar said in a press release issued Tuesday afternoon.
“Responsible applications of pesticides are paramount to protecting our environment while sustaining a vibrant agricultural economy,” she said.
In May of 2014, Alpine applied herbicide to an area around Bouldin Island to the east of Lodi to remove 4,467 acres of vegetation, which reportedly resulted in 139 separate reports of crop loss as far away as 39 miles from the target area due to winds of more than 10 miles an hour.
In addition, at least five people reported health symptoms from exposure to the chemical, according to the statement of decision posted online Tuesday.
Elisa Bubak, spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office, said 5,000 acres of land on Bouldin Island were damaged. She said there was substantial crop damage from the incident, but could not disclose the financial damages to local farmers.
In April of 2017, Alpine was spraying multiple chemicals on a walnut orchard at Jack Tone and Live Oak roads east of Lodi, and the pesticides being used reportedly drifted to nearby Turner Academy.
A complaint filed against the company last year stated droplets were deposited into the school, including the playground, picnic tables, parking lot and roof. The chemicals used can cause irreversible eye damage, skin problems and can be absorbed through the skin, the complaint stated.
In September of 2019, Alpine sprayed a pesticide that is harmful if swallowed, absorbed through skin or inhaled, on a pumpkin field directly west of the Stockton Sports Complex while children were playing soccer.
Winds were blowing southeast at speeds of up to 17 miles an hour, and pesticide drifted into the complex as families were attending a youth soccer game.
The pesticide’s label stated that it should not be applied when conditions are windy.
Investigators found an active ingredient in the pesticide on a tree in the complex parking lot, and a fallow field between the complex and pumpkin field, the 2021 complaint stated. Ten days later, the company sprayed the pumpkin field again while winds were blowing from the pumpkin field toward the complex at as much as 9 miles an hour, the complaint stated. The pesticide drifted onto a vehicle in the complex parking lot and investigators found an ingredient on the windshield.
Labels for the pesticide state it is harmful if absorbed through the skin, and that applicators should not allow spray to drift onto adjacent land or crops, the complaint stated.
On July 4 of 2020, Alpine applied a pesticide to a corn field near Isleton, which drifted to a nearby property and onto the arms, face and chest of a woman.
It is believed the woman’s dog, goats, poultry, rabbits and vegetable garden were sprayed during the application. An active ingredient in the pesticide was taken from the woman’s straw hat, the complaint stated.
The chemical’s label states that it causes mild eye irritation, and should not be applied in a way that will contact workers or other persons.
“Today’s decision is an important win for the many in our state who live and work in agricultural communities,” said State Attorney General Bonta said in Tuesday’s press release.
“Pesticides are toxic chemicals, and we have safeguards in place for a reason,” he said. “Alpine's careless approach to pesticide application is unacceptable. This decision should send a strong message to businesses: If you violate the law and ignore the safety of our communities, we will hold you accountable.”
To view Tuesday’s decision, visit tinyurl.com/AlpineDrift.