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Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Vanguard's Article on AgraQuest Provokes Strong Response from Both County Health Director and Building Owner

Following Friday's article on AgraQuest and the former office on Kennedy Place, Yolo County Health Director Bette Hinton was notified of the problem. As we now know, she actually learned of this problem a year ago.

Ironically, yesterday it was announced that Dr. Hinton would retire at the end of the year.
"Yolo County Health Officer and Health Department Director, Dr. Bette G. Hinton, today announced her intention to retire at the end of this year. Dr. Hinton has served Yolo County in her current position for the past ten years."
However, right now we focus on her response to this complaint.

Here is her full response:
"Our department became aware of Mr Bell's complaints in October of 2007. After review of a lengthy complaint document, the hazardous materials staff agreed that the Health Department had neither the technical expertise nor the regulatory authority to investigate the allegations. They made this decision after reviewing the Agra-Quest Hazardous Materials Business Plan, consultation with staff at the County Agriculture Department, the US Department of Agriculture, the Ca Dept of Food and Agriculture , the California Dept of Industrial Relations (CalOSHA) and with the US EPA. This matter was basically a workers compensation issue and a complaint that Agra-Quest dumped biological organisms with which they were working, into the soil around their facility. Additionally, the complaints were about an issue from 1998-1999 and there had been no other associated illnesses. In order to provide due diligence, we referred the complaint to USDA (which controls soil importation), California EPA and the California Department of Pesticide regulation. None of these agencies replied to us, but they may have investigated further.

With regard to the complaint of dumping biological material at the Kennedy Place facility, it would be extremely difficult to verify that now as the soil has been exposed for 10 years to any organism that might be found in our environment and many of the organisms that were used in the facility can be found elsewhere in our soil. Additionally, any pesticides which may have been successfully would probably be legal now for use on crops, etc. that surround us in an agricultural community. Personal contact with the soil would be necessary for harm to occur. This is not a chemical complaint where one might be concerned about water contamination or fumes from the site.

In summary, our hazardous materials specialist's evaluation is that the health department has no regulatory authority in this case. It does not appear to be an "imminent threat to public health and safety", which in the absence of clear regulatory authority, would be the only reason we could react."
My basic concerns with this response are threefold.

I fully understand that the Yolo County Health Department has "neither the technical expertise nor the regulatory authority to investigate the allegations." However, I would like to think as Director of the Health Department in Yolo County her responsibility would extend past that, and toward actually finding out who would have regulatory authority. This is a problem I have had at every level in this process and before me the family and consultants to David Bell. No one has had regulatory authority but worse yet, no one in a position to help has taken the time to find out who does.

Second, out of "due diligence" they referred the complaint to USDA, Cal-EPA, and Department of Pesticides, however, while they never replied, she also never followed up with them. To me that indicates a lack of concern.

Finally in response to the "imminent threat to public health and safety" there is actually some evidence that at least 11 other workers have become sick from this lab.

As Doug Haney, an expert on molds, fungi, and microbes tells us:
"When investigating this matter I was informed that one witness has indicated that at the same time Mr. Bell became ill, eleven other employees became ill also and the laboratory was locked up and secured by the company Chief Executive Officer."
They might not have reported their illness to the health department, but it seems unlikely that the health department has checked into this much either. Moreover, as I am sure Dr. Hinton is well aware, there are times when such impacts happen 10 to 20 years down the line.

Mr. Haney also takes issue with the claim that a sample taken ten years after the fact would not prove useful.
"To the contrary, and with the amount of chemicals and microbes that allegedly were dumped into the soil adjacent to the external wall directly behind the internal laboratory area, deep soil sampling 10 years later might render some very intriguing and revealing facts, especially those relating to microbial genetic mutational theory."
The overall response here from Dr. Hinton is disappointing. That is coupled by the response from Ron Broward, who is the owner of the building on Kennedy Place. He called the Vanguard on Monday morning at 10:00 to ask me to retract the story.

At this point I asked him why, he said that the story was completely false. His chief complaint was the use of the photos taken at the site, particularly that of the water faucet, which he characterized as a leaky sprinkler head. He said he has regular maintenance on the grounds who deal with such things and they simply replaced the sprinkler. Given the amount of corrosion and chemical deposits on that "sprinkler" it appears it would have had to be leaky for a long period of time.

I asked Doug Haney, who viewed the "sprinkler" what he thought he had seen:

"I saw and the picture shows it as, that could only be transferred over a long period of time. That's not a few day type accumulation. My first impression of it was as a biointeractive health psychologist is that it's chemistry, a lot of chemistry, on the drain."

Mr. Broward also suggested that the crow was planted on the location. That did not seem to be a very logical deduction.

I asked Sandi Trend, the mother of David Bell about this accusation:
"Believe me, it wasn't planted. It was suggested afterwords, well why didn't you get it so it could be analyzed. My comment was, I'm not touching that thing."
Instead she discovered it by happenstance when she came to look at the drain where her son had told her that he had dumped chemical drums years before.
"I took a friend of mine down and I want to see this drain where David said he was instructed to dump liquid. I didn't even notice the crow, it was my friend. I am looking around the building for a drain and it was my friend who said oh my god, there's a dead bird here. And that's how I saw the dead bird."
Of particular concern and unanswered by Mr. Broward was the lack of decomposition of this bird.

Doug Haney:
"I saw the crow two weeks later and I saw the pictures long after I saw the crow. I do know that the pictures were taken two weeks before because Sandi had told me that she had taken pictures of this crow earlier because she was putting it into her forte for her son.

That is correct [there was no decay of the bird when he inspected it]. After two weeks I would have expected to see almost bones and a little bit of feather."
The Vanguard is trying to track down another witnessed who viewed both the crow and the sprinkler with Mr. Haney.

In the meantime, Ron Broward adamantly told the Vanguard he would not pay to examine either the interior or the exterior of the building to determine if there is a potential health risk. He argued that there is no evidence that there is. He suggested that if I wanted it examined, I could pay for it myself.

He pointed out that AgraQuest has not even been in the building for a number of years. I mentioned to him that these microorganisms can survive much longer than that period of time. He admitted he did not know anything about that.

In a follow up meeting, yesterday, on the location, Broward told myself and several others that they had done extensive remodels of the building.

However, as Doug Haney points out, unless they are specifically going in to remove microfungi agents, a routine remodel would probably not be sufficient.

Finally, Mr. Broward told me that this report had scared his tenants. I went door-to-door yesterday with a resident of the Davisille Apartments next to the business park and we probably spoke to 20 or 30 people. All of them were concerned, none of them could be characterized as frightened. People want to know if this represents a health problem, but no one is panicking about it.

This process is likely going to move on with or without the help of the authorities. It is a shame that Mr. Broward responded as he did, he could have put an end to the uncertainty very quickly.

---David M. Greenwald reporting