Regulators investigating AZ medical marijuana grow after chemical spill

(Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

State regulators are investigating Arizona's largest medical marijuana grow facility after complaints about working conditions and a chemical spill.

The spill June 6 at Copperstate Farms in Snowflake sent 16 people to the emergency room for evaluation. The company said no employees were admitted to the hospital for more serious medical treatment.

"When it first happened, I became very nauseous. My eyes started burning and I didn't know why," said former Copperstate employee Kara Bracken. “My eyes were almost swollen shut and I was really nauseous and really dizzy.”

Bracken, who resigned from the 40-acre greenhouse facility this month, said she felt sick for five days after the spill and had bouts of dizzy spells “for about three weeks.”

Both the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality inspected the facility in July, according to Copperstate Farms spokesman Douglas Cole, after Arizona’s Family began asking questions about the case.

ADOSH inspected the facility July 10 for a health-related complaint that remains under investigation, records show. ADEQ visited the following day, Cole said.

A forklift driver accidentally toppled a plastic container of a common greenhouse acid cleaner called “Strip-It” onto the fertilizer room floor, Cole said. He estimated the spill was about three to five gallons. Strip-It’s manufacturer warns the product can cause burns if inhaled and “may be fatal if absorbed through the skin.”

Employees diluted the chemical and washed it down a drain that Cole said is not connected to a sewer. ADEQ inspectors have asked Copperstate to prove where the drain leads, according to an inspection report.

ADEQ also asked the company to test the acidity of a retention pond on the property and provide more information about its hazardous material safety training and the chemicals and fertilizers it uses. Cole said the company had complied with all the agency's requests except for the action item regarding the drain; he said forensic plumbers will inspect the system next week to ensure it is a closed loop.

After the spill, Cole said the company brought in consultants to review Copperstate’s safety procedures, but one current and three former employees said there are still issues with safety training and protective equipment.

Former employees raise other health, safety concerns

The current and former employees claimed health issues among the greenhouse workers are common.

Cale Nuest said he developed breathing problems while working in the greenhouse.

“I had an inhaler for work, I had an inhaler for home, and I had a breathing machine which I would use every day at lunch,” he said.

Nuest said he was fired by the company after hiring an attorney to pursue a worker’s compensation claim. He and Bracken, both in the processing department, said they regularly noticed coworkers carrying inhalers and experiencing breathing problems.

"I had such trouble breathing, I bought my own mask. Paid for it myself and I still had to go home at lunch and do a breathing treatment just so I could work the afternoon," Nuest said.

“You have all the [marijuana pollen], all the stuff that they spray on the weed is in the air, and you're breathing it. And it's night and day: when I go to work, I'm good and within the hour, I'm gasping for air.”

Copperstate acknowledged it uses pesticides and fungicides on its marijuana; however, Cole said he's not aware of widespread breathing problems and suggested it could be an allergic reaction to the marijuana itself.

"You're growing products that are God-made and there are all kinds of various organic materials in a greenhouse," he said.

Studies have shown cannabis can cause allergic reactions, although it is considered rare.

Another former employee, Michele Angel-Nierop, said she felt sick after breaking up chemical packets by hand, and ran into trouble on another occasion while working with irrigation lines in garden gloves.

"Because of whatever chemical they use [to flush the lines], I mean I had my fingers peel one of the times," she said.

"There was no safety training."

Once a greenhouse for tomatoes and cucumbers, Copperstate Farms purchased the 40-acre facility in Snowflake in September 2016 from NatureSweet USA and converted it to a medical marijuana grow. Copperstate currently has 10 acres in production and 222 full-time employees, Cole said.

The facility began operating in 2017 and has grown rapidly. It is run by Fife Symington, the son of the former Arizona governor of the same name.

The three former employees who spoke on the record say the spill and other health problems stem from a lack of adequate safety training and equipment; things like respirators, spill stations, gloves and eye protection. Bracken said company supervisors made eye protection mandatory for trimmers on the same day as our first interview.

"There was no safety training," said Angel-Nierop. "There was no training," added Nuest.

A study on marijuana workers in Colorado last year concluded "there is an imminent need to establish formal health and safety training" across the industry after 47 percent of the cannabis workers polled reported little to no training at all.

Among workers in marijuana grow facilities, 28 percent reported no health and safety training at all and another 28 percent reported receiving only one-time training, according to researchers at Colorado State University.

Here in Arizona, federal records show Copperstate is the third cannabis grow facility to be investigated for a health or safety complaint since December 2016. A greenhouse in Santa Cruz County was cited in 2016 for six violations, including a fine for a violation involving breathing masks.

"We welcome our regulatory agencies to come in and tell us any suggestions they may have, and we will implement that," Cole said. He said the company recently hired a full-time safety officer who was in place before the spill.

Copperstate has become the largest private sector in Snowflake, with a current workforce of 222 people. It contributes about $80,000 per year in special taxes to the town's general fund, which is less than $1 million total.

Employees say Copperstate has some of the best wages for unskilled workers in town, starting at $15 an hour with health benefits. “We constantly have a waiting list of potential employees who want to work at our facility,” Cole said.

But former workers say the competition over the high-paying jobs makes employees expendable, and makes supervisors reluctant to implement change. "They hold it over you: ‘You make more than teachers. We can treat you however we want,’” Bracken said.

Full PDF of report can be read HERE.

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Copyright 2018 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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