SEATTLE - Juan Angulo arrived for work at an eastern Washington apple orchard one day in 1995 and began vomiting. He developed a terrible headache, and his eyes and nose started to run.
The same thing happened to the rest of his work crew, all from exposure to the pesticide azinphos-methyl, Angulo believed.
"To this day, I still experience severe headaches, which I attribute to this poisoning incident," he said in a court declaration last fall.
Citing his case and others, lawyers for the United Farm Workers of America argued in federal court Friday that the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to allow the use of the pesticide until 2012 was unconscionable. The EPA did not consider harm to farmworkers and their families, or to rivers, lakes and salmon, they said, and the agency should be forced to reconsider.
"There are workers getting sick," Patti Goldman of the environmental law firm Earthjustice told U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez. "This isn't just hypothetical. There are workers being taken out of the field."
The pesticide, commonly called AZM, was derived from World War II-era nerve gas agents and has been used since the late 1950s.
In 2001, the EPA barred growers from using AZM on two dozen crops, including cotton, cabbage and grapes. But the agency continued to allow treatments on apples, pears, cherries, blueberries, parsley and other plants while it waited for cost-effective alternatives to emerge.
In 2006, the EPA decided to phase out all uses of the pesticide by 2012 — two years later than it had initially proposed.
Cynthia Morris, a Justice Department lawyer who argued on the agency's behalf, told the judge that the short-term benefits of allowing growers to keep using AZM for the next several years outweigh the potential harm. It could cost apple growers nationwide tens of millions of dollars to switch to alternative pesticides more quickly, she said, and in some cases other countries do not allow the import of apples with residue from those alternative pesticides.
Furthermore, Morris added, the later phase-out date led growers to voluntarily take measures to ease the impact of the pesticide until it is phased out, such as imposing buffer zones and training workers to avoid exposure.
She argued that the agency's decision was reasonable, and failed to meet the "arbitrary and capricious" standard for the judge to undo it.