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Plantation workers look for justice in the North

After years of toil in Central American fields where they say pesticide use made them sterile, they're suing Dow, Dole and other firms in L.A.

May 27, 2007|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

Early each morning he rides his battered black mountain bike seven blocks along rutted streets to the central market, a chaotic warren of shops where beef hangs in strips and baskets of papaya are lighted by shafts of sunlight.

Tellez haggles over prices before the day's damp heat descends. Heading home, he spends a cordoba -- about 5 cents -- for a brick-sized block of ice to chill his meat and vegetables.

His main job is tending to his mother, 80, who shuffles across the home's concrete floors with a donated walker. There is no one else to do the job. Tellez, 58, has no children, no wife, to help him.

He blames DBCP.

Tellez is the lead plaintiff in Tellez vs. Dole, scheduled for trial July 2. He joins a dozen other named plaintiffs, all of whom have had tests administered by their lawyers showing that their semen does not contain sperm.

Tellez believes that he became sterile after going to work outside the small town of Posoltega, 15 miles southeast of here, where Dole began operations in Nicaragua in the late 1960s.

On the plantation, where long, green alleys of banana trees stretched across more than 1,400 acres, he harvested bananas, cut weeds from the plants, trimmed leaves and hauled irrigation tubes.

Tellez said he was never given protective gear while working in the fields. Nor, he said, did anyone tell him that DBCP could cause sterility.

"They told us to go to work, and we would go to work," Tellez said.

Tellez married, but he and his wife were unable to have children. She eventually left him to live with another man, Tellez said, and soon had a child.

Tellez had thought his wife had the problem. But tests showed he was sterile.

In the macho culture of rural Nicaragua, children are a measure of wealth and power. Tellez had neither. He was labeled a buey -- slang for a castrated bull.

"It demoralized me," he said. "I felt like a useless man."

Sterility and pesticide

Epidemiological studies have confirmed that DBCP causes sterility in human males, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Evidence of other human health effects is less clear. However, lab animals exposed to DBCP have developed stomach and lung cancers and kidney and brain damage, according to the agency.

DBCP's toxicity first made news in 1977, when about three dozen factory workers at an Occidental Petroleum Corp. subsidiary in Lathrop, Calif., where pesticides were mixed, reported problems having children. Tests showed the factory workers had zero or below-normal sperm counts.

Within months, the EPA had suspended most uses of DBCP. Government hearings revealed that Dow and Shell Chemical Co., then a subsidiary of Shell Oil Co., the primary makers of DBCP, had long known about its dangers. Tests dating to the 1950s showed the chemical atrophied lab animals' testes.

Workers began filing lawsuits. In 1983, Duane Miller, a young Sacramento attorney, won a $4.9-million judgment against Dow on behalf of six Occidental workers. Two years later, the EPA permanently banned the use of DBCP in the United States.

It was the first skirmish in a legal war that soon spanned the globe.

U.S. law firms began suing in U.S. courts on behalf of workers in other countries -- more than 50,000 plantation workers over 30 years in countries including the Philippines, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Ivory Coast. The defendants have been the manufacturers of DBCP -- Dow and Shell -- and the fruit companies that used it: Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita.

Nearly every case ran into the legal doctrine forum non conveniens, which says lawsuits should be heard in the countries where the damage occurred. Lawyers for the companies convinced judges to transfer the cases to the countries of origin.

In practice, that stalled the lawsuits for years. Complex trials bogged down in ill-equipped Third World courts. Plaintiffs' law firms lacked money to pursue cases in foreign countries.

The companies settled some cases without admitting culpability. In 1992, several firms reached a settlement in which $20 million was paid to 1,000 Costa Ricans. In 1997, Dow and other companies paid $41.5 million to 26,000 workers worldwide.

The money was divided among thousands of plaintiffs. After attorneys' fees, some workers received no more than a few hundred dollars.

By the late 1990s, banana workers and attorneys were frustrated by their inability to get a case before a U.S. jury, with the potential for higher awards and, more important for some, a finding of wrongdoing by the companies.

New rules in court

Then Nicaragua changed the rules. In 2000, its legislators passed a special law to facilitate DBCP lawsuits.

The law stacked the deck in favor of the workers: DBCP was automatically considered the cause of sterility in any banana worker. Companies had to deposit $100,000 with Nicaraguan courts simply for the opportunity to defend themselves.

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