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Following allegations of pesticide drift, judge orders Bakersfield applicator to stop

Many rules and regulations exist to prevent pesticides, including those applied by airplane or helicopter, from drifting away from their targeted area.
Photo by Eric Brehm via Unsplash
Many rules and regulations exist to prevent pesticides, including those applied by airplane or helicopter, from drifting away from their targeted area.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - A Bakersfield aviation company is facing allegations it caused harmful pesticide drift. On Tuesday, a judge temporarily ordered the company to stop aerially applying pesticides.

The company, known as Agra Fly, drops pesticides onto agricultural fields using planes and helicopters. Regulators with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation say its operations resulted in at least six incidents of illegal drift, which is when a pesticide travels from its target area onto an unintended one.

“Pesticides are used to target specific pests, but if they drift from that target they could have unintended consequences,” said Karen Morrison, chief deputy director and science advisor for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR).

Those consequences can be significant, Morrison said. For instance, a pesticide intended for use on the canopy of one crop can be harmful if it drifts onto fruit or flowers of a neighboring field. Some commodities may not be legally sold if the wrong product drifts onto them, and some chemicals may render pastureland unfit for cattle grazing.

“A lot of our work is actually done to minimize and avoid drift as much as possible,” Morrison said.

Due to state regulations, Morrison said drift is actually pretty uncommon. That’s why her agency filed a complaint against Agra Fly last week in Kern County Superior Court.

According to the DPR complaint, the six alleged incidents of illegal drift occurred in Tulare and Kern Counties between September 2022 and September 2023. Those chemicals allegedly damaged trees and pastures, and even struck people. One person reported nausea and burning skin. Agra Fly and its owner John Slykerman paid out fines in at least three of these incidents.

Additionally, the complaint alleges that Slykerman has been operating for the last six months without a valid medical certificate required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Defendants’ activities are a public nuisance that endanger the life, wellbeing, and property of the community. Each day that [Slykerman and Agra Fly] conduct aerial pesticide applications, the significant threat to the community exists,” reads the complaint.

Typically, enforcement of pesticide regulations begins at the county level, but state action against individual applicators is not unheard of. In the last year, DPR took disciplinary action and then entered into a legal settlement with another company, Hollister-based TriCal Inc., following nine incidents and 61 violations in multiple Central California counties.

“The state is responsible for taking action against licenses, and this often happens when we see repeat violators where the initial enforcement happening at the county level is insufficient,” Morrison said.

In response to the DPR complaint against Agra Fly, a Kern County judge on Tuesday signed a temporary restraining order that requires the company to halt aerial pesticide applications until a hearing set for December 15.

Agra Fly did not return KVPR’s request for comment.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.