The Sunshine State's Pesticide Problem

Thousands of black farm laborers have suffered kidney failure, birth defects, and worse—and Florida isn't compensating them


No wonder Tea Party activists love Florida governor Rick Scott. To save a pittance on the state's budget, Scott, who has a personal net worth of more than $200 million, thanks in part to his having been president of a healthcare company that perpetrated the biggest medical fraud in United States history, vetoed a bill earlier this month that finally would have brought relief to 2,500 poverty-plagued African American farm laborers. Over the course of five decades, these people were poisoned on a daily basis by a witch's brew of pesticides.

I met Linda Lee, one of the afflicted workers, last summer when she took me on a "pesticide tour" of the land near Lake Apopka, a few miles northeast of Orlando. Leaning on her cane in the scorching midday June sun, Lee, who is 57, matter-of-factly listed her medical conditions: diabetes, lupus, high blood pressure, emphysema, and arthritis. Her hip had to be replaced and her gall bladder removed. Her kidneys failed, so she had a transplant. She also had two corneal implants. Asked what caused her woes, she didn't hesitate: As a farm laborer on the shores of Lake Apopka in the 1970s and 1980s, she was routinely exposed to agricultural chemicals as she worked in the fields. "Plenty of my old friends and neighbors got what I got, and a lot of them got stuff I don't want to get," she told me.

In a survey of workers conducted in 2006, the Farmworker Association of Florida found that 92 percent of the agricultural workers in the region had been exposed to pesticides through a combination of aerial spraying, wind drifting from applications on adjacent fields, touching plants still wet with pesticides, and inhaling pesticides. In a state where the average incidence of birth defects is 3 percent, 13 percent of the Apopka workers had a child born with a defect.

For the last 12 years, the Farmworker Association has been trying to get someone—anyone—to pay attention to this cluster of illnesses and provide money to help those most in need. The state government was able to find $1.5 million to investigate illnesses and deaths in birds. It paid for research into why alligators around Apopka had smaller than normal penises, but not a nickel was spent on the laborers who spent their lives working, eating, and sleeping on the contaminated land.

Finally, state senator Gary Siplin, a Democrat, put an allocation of $500,000 for the Apopka workers in the $70 billion 2011 budget. Surprisingly, that budget passed the house and senate, both overwhelmingly Republican, only to be vetoed by Governor Scott. "We were so close," Lee said. "The governor just canceled out our hard work. He broke the spirits of so many in South Apopka that really need healthcare and don't receive it."

Scott's veto is the latest tragedy in one of the country's biggest environmental boondoggles. Roughly circular and measuring about 10 miles in diameter, Lake Apopka is the state's fourth largest lake. For a time in the first half of the 20th century, it was nationally famous for its trophy largemouth bass, and 21 lodges sprang up on its shores to cater to anglers from around the world.

But by the 1980s, Apopka had earned yet another distinction: It was the Sunshine State's most polluted large lake. By then the fabled bass were extinct. Blame for the declining water quality was not hard to assign. In 1941, as part of the wartime effort to produce more fruits and vegetables, 19,000 acres of swamp on the lake's north shore were drained to make way for farms that were heavily sprayed with chemical fertilizer and pesticides. During the growing season, farmers pumped water in and out of the lake depending on irrigation requirements and rainfall amounts. In the off season, they allowed the lake to flood the fields to replenish the soil and prevent wind erosion and weed growth. With each cycle, the water picked up poisons and fertilizers that had been spread on the fields.

By 1996, the situation had become so dire that the Florida government bought out the big landowners and closed down the farms. The 14 landowners were paid $103 million for property and equipment. (In one sweet deal, a farmer sold the government a vegetable cooler for $1.4 million and then bought it back at auction for $35,000.) The workers, who often had families that lived with them on the land, got nothing other than the order to clear out. They were not retrained for new jobs because the powerful farmers feared that educated workers would abandon the fields before the last carrot or tomato was picked.

In the winter of 1998, the Saint John's River Water Management District decided to reverse the usual pattern of water flow and flood the recently acquired land in the winter to attract waterfowl. Sure enough, that year the Audubon Society tallied the largest Christmas count of migrating birds ever recorded for an inland location. The joy was short lived. By the end of the winter, more than 1,000 fish-eating birds had died—blue herons, white pelicans, bald eagles. It was one of the worst bird-death disasters in United States history.

"It's painful trying to get up in the morning and get from one day to the next," said Lee as we walked along a sandy track though the now-overgrown fields. Even though a dozen seasons have come and gone since the last pass of a pesticide-spraying tractor, signs read, "Warning. Visitors must stay on roads. No fishing allowed on this property. These lands were former agricultural land that were subject to regular use of agricultural chemicals, some of which, such as DDT, are persistent in the environment and may present a risk to human health." Lee and her peers received no such warnings when she went into the fields to pick corn, cabbages, carrots, greens, and tomatoes, receiving 12 cents to pack a box of corn, 15 cents for a box of greens.

"This felt like our one chance, now it's gone," said ex-farmworker Betty Dubose. "Where do we go from here?"

Image: Barry Estabrook