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Pesticide company settles sterility suit for $300,000

Amvac Chemical of Newport Beach will pay 13 Nicaraguan workers exposed to DBCP on banana plantations nearly 30 years ago.

April 16, 2007|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

CHINANDEGA, NICARAGUA — A Southern California pesticide company has agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging that one of the firm's products caused agricultural workers in Nicaragua to become sterile, plaintiffs' attorneys announced Sunday.

Amvac Chemical Corp. has agreed to pay a total of $300,000 to 13 Nicaraguan workers who contended that they were sterilized while exposed to a pesticide called DBCP on banana plantations nearly three decades ago.

The agreement, which Amvac filed late last month, still requires final approval by a Los Angeles judge. In court papers, the Newport Beach-based company called the agreement a "compromise of disputed claims" and denied any wrongdoing. An Amvac spokesman could not be reached Sunday.

Dow Chemical Co. and Dole Fruit Co. remain as defendants in the case, which is scheduled for trial next month in Los Angeles. In addition, the three companies face other lawsuits involving similar allegations in the United States and Nicaragua.

Each of the companies has denied that any workers were harmed by DBCP, which was manufactured by Dow and Amvac and used by Dole on plantations in Latin America. The chemical is no longer made or used.

Lawyers announced the settlement at a rally attended by nearly 800 people. They said that the payments, which range from $2,000 to $60,000 per person depending on the injury and the years when they worked, were the first step toward a settlement for thousands of other workers in Nicaragua, many of them elderly and impoverished.

"This is the point of the spear," said Juan Dominguez, the Los Angeles lawyer who filed the lawsuit. Additional funds, he said, could come as the case proceeds against Dow and Dole, which are larger companies.

The former banana workers, who were packed shoulder to shoulder on a basketball court in blistering heat, waved their hands and caps in the air after the news was announced.

More than 12,000 workers contend that they were sterilized or otherwise sickened by DBCP, which has been shown to cause sterility and brain and kidney damage in tests of lab animals.

Tens of thousands of banana workers worldwide have sued over the use of DBCP. No lawsuit has ever gone to trial in the United States.

In 1997, Dow, Shell Group and Occidental Chemical Corp. settled one such suit with 26,000 workers in Latin America and elsewhere for $41 million. Both men and women say they were injured by the chemical, but sterility has been proven only in males.

"We have been fighting this fight for so long," said Carlos Miguel Blanco, 48, a plaintiff who alleges that he was rendered infertile while working on a banana plantation in the 1970s.

"We want to finish this, not just for me," he said, "but for everyone who was affected."

DBCP was suspended for most uses in the United States in 1977 after workers at an Occidental plant in Lathrop, Calif., were found to have low or zero sperm counts after working with the compound.

In previous interviews, Amvac officials have contended that their company played only a small role in the case.

The company made and sold the product to Nicaragua for only two years, after it was suspended for use in the United States and other companies ceased making it, according to court records.

DBCP was not permanently banned for all uses in the United States until 1985.

Amvac was the subject of a recent Times story that detailed the company's business strategy of buying from larger firms the rights to market older pesticides, many of them under regulatory scrutiny.

t.christian.miller@latimes.com

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