The pest control corporation Terminix International Co. LP and its U.S. Virgin Islands operation Terminix International USVI LLC have agreed to pay $10 million in fines after being charged Tuesday with multiple violations of the federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act.
Terminix allegedly applied fumigants containing illegal methyl bromide in multiple residential locations in the U.S. Virgin Islands, including the condominium resort complex on St. John where a family of four fell seriously a year ago after the unit below them was fumigated, according to a statement from the U.S. Justice Department issued Tuesday.
Methyl bromide has been banned for inside use for more than 30 years, since 1984, by the Environmental Protection Agency, but became the culprit in the highly publicized poisoning in late March 2015 of the Delaware family at Sirenusa condominium resort on St. John.
According to the Department of Justice release, around March 18, 2015, two employees of Terminix USVI, performed a fumigation pesticide treatment at the lower rental unit of Building J at Sirenusa on St. John, without properly sealing off and evacuating the area.
Though the $10 million is slated for fines, EPA cleanup and community service projects, the District Court of the U.S. Virgin Islands, which still must approve the plea agreement, expects Terminix to voluntarily make restitution for past and future medical bills for the Esmond family within a three-year probationary period to avoid being forced by the court to do so.
Dr. Theresa Devine, the mother, was the first to begin to recover from the poisoning, according to published reports. Her husband, Steve Esmond, and their two sons had been paralyzed, with the sons faring the worst, according to various reports.
The entire family suffered nerve damage and may never fully recovery, doctors have said.
The family received a visit from Pope Francis in September.
Except for completing one government contract at the Port of Baltimore, Terminix LP has stopped using pesticides containing methyl bromide in the United States and U.S. territories.
Under the agreement, Terminix USVI will pay $5 million in fines and $1 million in restitution to the EPA for response and cleanup costs at the St. John resort. Terminix LP will pay a fine of $3 million and will fund a $1 million community service project in the USVI.
“When misused, highly toxic pesticides can have catastrophic consequences and that’s why those who are certified to apply them must do so responsibly and lawfully,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
“The facts in this case show the Terminix companies knowingly failed to properly manage their pest control operations in the U.S. Virgin Islands, allowing pesticides containing methyl bromide to be applied illegally and exposing a family of four to profoundly debilitating injuries,” Cruden said.
“While on probation,” he said, “the companies are required to demonstrate to the EPA changes to their internal management and systems to ensure this type of tragedy does not reoccur.”
U.S. Attorney Ronald W. Sharpe of the District of the Virgin Islands said, “This prosecution demonstrates the importance of complying with environmental laws and regulations. Tragically, the defendants’ failure to do so resulted in catastrophic injuries to the victims and exposed many others to similar harm.”
“When you break a law that protects public health, there are real victims and real consequences, as this case tragically shows,” Sharpe continued. “This incident illustrates how important it is for EPA to enforce environmental laws and hold anyone accountable for endangering our safety.”
Assistant Administrator Cynthia Giles for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance said Tuesday’s charges “should send a clear message to the industry and directs important funds toward training programs to help ensure this can’t happen again.”
Pesticides containing methyl bromide in the U.S. are restricted-use due to their acute toxicity, meaning that they must only be applied by a certified applicator.
According to the information filed in federal court in the U.S. District Court of the Virgin Islands on Tuesday, the defendants knowingly applied restricted-use fumigants at Sirenusa for the purpose of exterminating household pests on or about Oct. 20, 2014, and on or about March 18, 2015. The companies were also charged with applying the restricted-use pesticide in 12 residential units in St. Croix and one additional unit in St. Thomas between September 2012 and February 2015.
According to the plea documents, Terminix USVI provided pest control services in the territory including fumigation treatments for Powder Post Beetles, a common problem in the islands. These fumigation treatments were referred to as “tape and seal” jobs, meaning that the affected area was to be sealed off from the rest of the structure with plastic sheeting and tape prior to the introduction of the fumigant.
Customers were generally told that after a treatment persons could not enter the building for a two to three-day period.
After the government began its investigation, Terminix voluntarily ceased its use of methyl bromide in the U.S. and in U.S. territories, except for one remaining supervised government contract.
The case was investigated by EPA Criminal Investigation Division working worked cooperatively with the Virgins Islands government and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Senior litigation counsel Howard P. Stewart of the Department of Justice, Environmental Crimes Section, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim L. Chisholm of the District of the Virgin Islands are prosecuting the case with assistance of Patricia Hick, EPA Region II Regional Criminal Enforcement counsel.
The investigation is ongoing.