DATELINE TEXAS Poison, Politics , and Prevarication BY NATE BLAKESLEE ou couldn’t say Rick Perry has a body in his basemen4 because the man he buried is alive and talking His name is Benny Fisher,. and he,’s’ now the sheriff of Delta County, a triangle of small East Texas cotton communities wedged between two branches of the Sulphur River; about sev enty-five miles east of Dallas. Fisher worked for Perry at the Texas Department of Agriculture from January of 1991, when Perry entered office, until September of 1993, when Fisher was fired. Hired in 1981 by Perry’s predecessor, Jim Hightower, Fisher spent his last five years at the department as a pesticide enforcement field investigator in the Tyler district, which spanned most of the cotton-producing counties in East Texas. Monitoring pesticide use is the primary regulatory function performed by T.D.A., and the legwork is mainly carried out by a small group of field agents. When the department receives a complaint, more often than not involving incidents of pesticide “drift” \(whereby one farmer’s crops or livestock are poisoned by agent is sent out to collect samples and conduct interviews. By all accounts, Fisher was good at his job. “Benny was real diligent and hard-working,” recalls Cordelia Martinez, a former T.D.A. attorney who worked with Fisher. “Benny Fisher was one of the best,” says another former co-worker, Leroy Biggers, now Tyler regional director for the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission. “And whatever he tells you is true,” Biggers adds. Fisher is frankly proud of his record. “Out of twenty-eight state inspectors, I filed more complaints, made better cases, and collected more in fine money than anyone in the state,” Fisher, now fifty-six, said in an interview at his home in Cooper. Fisher’s last major investigation, begun under Hightower, concerned allegations of illegal waste dumping by the largest pesticide manufacturer in the state. According to Fisher, his superiors at T.D.A. buried the investigation almost immediately after Rick Perry took office. And shortly thereafter, they buried Benny Fisher. On December 6, 1988, Fisher received a call from Allen Hayes, a young, inexperienced Texas Water Commission investigator, asking for assistance on an investigation of arsenic contamination at a pesticide manufacturing plant outside of Bonham. The plant was owned by Voluntary Purchasing Group, maker of over 200 types of agricultural chemicals, including liquid arsenic acid, produced by only one other company in the United States. Until the practice was banned in 1993, generations of Texas cotton farmers used arsenic acid to dry out the bolls of their cotton plants prior to harvesting them. Accompanied by Hayes, Fisher arrived unannounced at the Bonham plant and informed VPG presi dent Mike Smith that he had come to do an inspection. Smith reluctantly acquiesced, and Fisher and Hayes toured the five hundred acres surrounding the plant, taking soil samples from the pasture, water samples from a couple of creeks, and tissue samples from a dead cow. After lab analysis, all of the samples showed elevated levels of arsenic. Fisher interviewed neighbors and past employees of the plant over the course of the next year, collecting sworn eyewitness accounts of alleged illegal dumping of arsenic waste, both at the current site, and at a previous site in downtown Bonham. Fisher was told by former employees that THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5 OCTOBER 23, 1998
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