Potato grower is indicted Nondisinfected water said to be used on fields

June 11, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

A federal grand jury has indicted America's second-largest potato grower, charging that Agri-Empire Corp. used nondisinfected waste water to grow its potatoes before shipping millions of them across the nation to supermarkets, potato brokers and ultimately fast-food restaurants.

The company, one of the largest agricultural businesses in California, was not charged with endangering human health, and public health experts said it was impossible to say whether a health hazard would have been created by the practice alleged in the indictment.

Dave Spath, chief of technical programs for the state's Office of Drinking Water at the Health Services Department, said yesterday that "theoretically, it could create a problem," especially for workers who handled the potatoes.

Although it is partially treated, nondisinfected waste water can carry viruses, parasites and bacteria, Mr. Spath said, all of which probably would be killed by cooking the potatoes. But handling them could be risky, he added. Nondisinfected waste water may legally be used to water crops for seed or for animal consumption, but may not be used on crops meant for humans, said Dick Heil, a spokesman for the Eastern Municipal Water District, in San Jacinto, Calif.

Thomas Parker, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field division, said health risks appeared to be minimal, but he added that the company may have needlessly put the public at risk. "If the charges alleged in the indictment are true, they placed greed above concerns about human safety," Agent Parker said.

A lawyer for the company said yesterday he was disappointed that the federal government chose to pursue indictments against the company and its president. "We believe the indictment is unwarranted and fully expect to be vindicated at trial," said Thomas E. Holliday, who is representing Agri-Empire.

The 33-count indictment caps an investigation that surfaced nearly a year ago when FBI agents and California Highway Patrol officers led raids on the company's San Jacinto headquarters and searched one of its feedlots. They acted on tips from informants that the company and its officers -- including its president, drag-race champion James Larry Minor -- had buried thousands of unwashed pesticide containers on land used for cattle.

The indictment charges the company and Mr. Minor with conspiracy, mail fraud, and the illegal transportation, storage and disposal of hazardous waste. If convicted, Mr. Minor could face up to 159 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. The corporation faces a maximum fine of $500,000 on each count, the office added.

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