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Town Hall Coalition in the News
Pesticide tied to dead birds found in water
Mary Callahan
(Press Democrat, 1/21/01)

A pesticide linked to the deaths of about 400 birds in and around a Geyserville vineyard has been detected in ground water on the site, raising concerns about the potential for future contamination of neighboring residential wells, officials say.

The drinking water for about 80 families who live in the nearby Vineyard Estates subdivision tested free of the pesticide Nemacur, which was applied at Klein Family Vineyards in November.
Samples from nearby agricultural wells also were clean.

But it's not yet known if -- or where -- toxic chemicals are migrating in the ground water, said Bob Tancreto, an engineer with the North Coast Water Quality Control Board.

"That's part of what has been required of the property owner,'' he said. "They have to find out.''

In the meantime, he said, testing of residential wells will continue to ensure they remain unpolluted.

Fenamiphos, the active ingredient in Nemacur, is an organophosphate, a class of chemicals originally designed to function as nerve gas in World War II.

It is toxic to wildlife and to human beings when ingested orally, inhaled or absorbed through the skin, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Acute poisoning can cause symptoms ranging from tremors and lack of coordination to toxic psychosis, unconsciousness and ultimately death in the most serious cases.

Use of the pesticide, which was applied more than 80 times in Sonoma County during the past two years, has been suspended in both Sonoma and Mendocino counties pending completion of an investigation into the Geyserville case.

Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey Holtzman, who will be deciding if civil or criminal charges are warranted in the case, said the public would have been alerted if drinking water had appeared contaminated.

"It's very serious, and the people who are dealing with it understand that it's very serious; but that doesn't mean that you throw out the window a careful analysis of what's found, and I think that's what's taking place here,'' he said.

Residents, who were advised early this month to start drinking bottled water, were alarmed, however, said environmental activist Lynn Hamilton, who has fielded calls from some of them.

"The neighbors are scared to death. That's what they told me,'' said Hamilton, founder of the Occidental-based Town Hall Coalition.

Nemacur, used to combat tiny parasitic worms called nematodes, was applied through a drip irrigation system to about 30 acres of wine grapes near River Road and Highway 128 outside Geyserville last November.

Afterward, neighbors reported a die-off of songbirds to the state Department of Fish and Game and other agencies, which subsequently determined the birds likely died after drinking or bathing in contaminated puddles of water.

Sampling of water in an irrigation well from which water was pumped to apply the pesticide later turned up "an extremely low level ... right at the threshold, probably, of detection,'' Tancreto said.

It has not been determined whether the well was contaminated directly or through soil percolation, he said.

The finding prompted warnings to residents by Jerry and Virginia Gill, who manage the Vineyard Estates Mutual Water Company, a delivery system run and supported by residents of the subdivision.

A notice included with water bills early this month warned customers of contamination at the vineyard site and advised them to drink bottled water. It seemed ``the prudent thing to do,'' Virginia Gill said.

A notice sent out last week after testing showed the water was clean said it was now safe to drink, but added that it will be periodically tested to ensure it remains safe.

"The only way we'll be able to tell that is with continued testing, which we certainly plan to do at reasonable intervals,'' Virginia Gill said.

Nemacur was applied by Vino Farms Inc., which manages some 4,000 acres of wine grapes in Sonoma and Napa counties. Klein Family Vineyards, which hired Vino Farms, owns Rodney Strong Vineyards and Winery.

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