Lawsuit claims chemicals sprayed on Peach County orchards made woman sick

bpurser@macon.comFebruary 27, 2013 

Bonnie West, a show dog breeder and former hospice nurse, claims pesticides sprayed on peach and pecan orchards in Peach County made her and her dogs sick.

West, 67, lived on nearby Bleckley Road in Fort Valley for about two years from April 2010 to May 2012.

West claims she became so sick that her hair fell out, she was hospitalized numerous times and continues to suffer from fatigue, asthma and other medical conditions. Also, her prize West Highland white terriers that were bred for competition and income became unable to reproduce, she said, noting one had several puppies born with organs outside of their body.

West has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Macon seeking compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at a jury trial as well as payment of attorney’s fees.

The lawsuit was filed against Lane Packing Co.; Southern Orchard Supply Co., Inc.; Lane Southern Orchards; Southern Orchard Sales, LLC; and Lane Packing, LLC in relation to the peach orchard and against Fenster Farms in relation to the pecan orchard.

“They stole my life from me,” West said in a telephone interview.

Brandon Oren, a Macon attorney who represents Lane Packing and other parties named in the lawsuit in relation to the peach orchard, said he expects West’s claims will prove to be without merit. He declined comment on specific allegations made by West and in the lawsuit.

“I think the facts will show that Lane did everything within proper procedures,” Oren said.

Representatives of Fenster Farms either declined comment or could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.

West, who now lives in Calhoun, said she moved to Houston County in 2006 after taking care of elderly relatives during the last years of their lives in Florida. She came because of her experiences in Middle Georgia, including attending dog shows at the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter. She later moved to Byron and then to Bleckley Road, where she rented a mobile home on the 2-acre property with the option to buy. She said she put down deep roots at Perry United Methodist Church.

But West said she became so sick that she became disabled and was forced to move away. She’s now working as a hospice nurse part- time as she isable, though she said she still tires quickly due to her health.

West recalled an incident that occurred while she was living near the orchards. She said she went to her mailbox as a tractor spraying pesticides from a huge canister passed by. She noted the driver was wearing a full hazardous material suit with a respirator.

“I ended up being drenched from head to toe,” West said. “It was literally dripping off of me.”

West filed a written complaint in April 2012 with the Georgia Department of Agriculture, which collected grass and tree leaves from the Bleckley Road property for testing, the lawsuit stated.

The testing revealed the grass and leaves were contaminated with chemicals glyphosate and thiamethoxam beyond acceptable levels, the lawsuit states.

In May 2012, the Department of Agriculture issued a warning letter to Lane Southern Orchards and Fenster Farms regarding the misuse and misapplication of the chemicals, the lawsuit states.

The letter, which The Telegraph obtained under the state’s open records law, stated that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup Power Max, was applied by Fenster Farms, and thiamethoxam, the active ingredient found in Actara, was applied by Lane Southern Orchards.

“Since both products were detected in the sample, we can conclusively determine that some drift resulted from both applications,” the letter stated. “You are reminded that drift is a violation of state pesticide laws, and all precautions must be taken to ensure that no drift occurs during your application.

“If we find you in violation of state pesticide laws again, we will have no choice other than to initiate more stringent enforcement action,” the letter stated. “This could result in the imposition of fines and/or action being taken against your applicator’s license.”

There are no other complaints, investigations or warnings against Lane Southern Orchards or Fenster Farms, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Mark Sanchez, chief executive officer for Lane Southern Orchards, said he could not comment on the litigation. But he released the following statement:

“We recognize that there is a pending legal case. Lane Southern Orchards has been in business, following best agricultural practices, for more than 100 years. We were the first grower/shipper in Georgia to receive certification by GlobalGap food safety and sustainability program in 2011. We have passed and continue to pass stringent inspections by the Georgia Department of Agriculture. We’re extremely proud of the way we do business.”

According to its website, GlobalGap is a non-governmental organization that sets voluntary standards for the certification of agricultural products around the globe.

Walker Garrett, a Columbus attorney representing West, said it’s hoped the lawsuit will settle out of court.

“Hopefully, it doesn’t have to end up going to trial,” Garrett said. “I’ve always had a good experience with Lane Packing, and a lot of people have. I think they’ll live up to their reputation in the community, and they’ll take responsibility for whatever doctors and the experts in this case do determine in connection with the pesticides. I’d like to think they will take responsibility for that and take care of Miss West.”

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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