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A TIMES INVESTIGATION

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

In December 2002, a Nicaraguan judge awarded nearly $490 million to about 450 workers. Other big judgments followed. Dow and Dole have so far blocked attempts to enforce the Nicaraguan judgments in U.S. courts.

The new law made Nicaragua hostile territory for Dow, Dole and other defendants. That created an opportunity for new lawsuits in the United States, which Dole and Dow no longer opposed.

Dominguez, perhaps best known for his ubiquitous personal-injury ads on Los Angeles buses, seized the opportunity. He partnered with Sacramento attorney Miller, who had filed the first DBCP lawsuits in the U.S. nearly 30 years earlier, and they filed suit in Los Angeles in 2004.

To build the case, Dominguez opened an office here, in the center of Nicaragua's banana belt. He connected with local union bosses, ran advertisements on the radio, even sponsored a local baseball team.

Thousands came forward to provide sperm samples in a back room set up in Dominguez's office, a yellow and brown one-story building near the main square here. The samples were analyzed by a laboratory paid for by the attorneys.

Dominguez and Miller filed legal briefs citing old corporate documents which, they said, showed that Dole officials were aware of the dangers. In a 1978 memo, a top Dole official warned that implementing all the procedures in a guide for safe use of DBCP was "well nigh impossible."

"Did they warn you about this? No," Dominguez told another crowd at a recent rally. "Did they put you in danger? Yes."

Although only 13 plaintiffs have been named in the U.S. suit, a victory could result in settlements for the thousands of other former banana workers who can show sterility problems. An original defendant in the Tellez case, Amvac Chemical Corp. of Newport Beach, settled for $300,000 last month.

Dominguez has registered about 12,000 clients in Nicaragua alone. Worldwide, the number of possible clients is estimated to be hundreds of thousands.

Dole and Dow have long experience with such lawsuits. In some instances, the companies have been able to show that supposedly infertile men fathered children. The companies have also discovered plaintiffs who did not work on farms that used DBCP.

Dole has settled some cases directly with workers. It recently announced a program in Honduras to pay up to $5,800 to banana workers who agreed to drop their claims against the company. The company is seeking a similar accord in Nicaragua. Such settlements, Dole said, were not admissions of wrongdoing.

"We don't want to spend our lives forever dealing with this, so the company has adopted an approach to find a reasonable resolution to these pending claims," said Carter, Dole's general counsel.

History of contamination

It is not easy to show that DBCP caused a worker's sterility or health problems, especially in a poor country like Nicaragua.

The region around Chinandega has long been dominated by agriculture, producing cotton, sugar cane and other crops. For decades, growers -- from both the United States and Nicaragua -- sprayed DDT, DBCP and other highly toxic pesticides, many linked to developmental or health problems.

Seven studies conducted from 1995 to 2002 found contamination in community wells. Locals routinely drink water tainted with pesticides, said Valeria Delgado, an investigator at Nicaragua's Center for the Investigation of Water. None of the studies tested specifically for DBCP.

Studies have also found that water supplies are laced with fecal matter and other pollutants. Medical care is scarce. Diet is subsistence level. Many of the men drink heavily.

Medical officials acknowledge that they have no proof, just strong suspicions, that the town's ills are linked to pesticides.

"If you work in this environment and you wind up sick, I can presume it's an effect of chemical intoxication," said Yolanda Garcia, a toxicologist at the local clinic. "I can presume, but I can't prove."

Death of a mother

All across Nicaragua's banana region, in churches and classrooms, at funerals and bars, DBCP is blamed for every illness.

One hot day last August, Leticia Vidabre, 63, lay dying on a mattress on the concrete patio behind her house.

A neighbor waved a folded piece of paper to keep off the flies. Acrid smoke wafted from a nearby cooking fire. Next door, salsa music blared.

Slipping in and out of consciousness, Vidabre struggled to tell her story. She worked in the packing section at one of Dole's plantations, she said, putting bananas into boxes for shipping to the United States.

She said she believed that washing the bananas and drinking water on the plantations had exposed her to DBCP. After 16 years of working on a plantation called San Pablo, Vidabre began to feel sick. Her back hurt. Headaches were constant. She quit and became a housewife.

"When I started work at San Pablo, I was healthy. When I left, I was in a bad way," she said.

Last year, a doctor told her that her kidneys were not functioning well. A large woman with heavy lips and eyes, Vidabre began spending her days in bed.

"Those bananas weren't for us," she said. "But so many of us have died."

A month later, on Sept. 6, Vidabre died. She was buried in the town cemetery, just down the road from the old banana plantation.

Her relatives blamed the pesticide. But nobody really knew.

t.christian.miller@latimes.com

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