Terminix fined $10 million; pesticide poisoned family in Virgin Islands

(CNN) Terminix has agreed to pay $10 million for illegally using a pesticide containing a toxic chemical in the U.S. Virgin Islands, federal officials said.

The plea deal comes more than a year after a family of four vacationing in the U.S. Virgin Islands fell seriously ill when the unit below them was fumigated.

“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,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden said in a statement Tuesday.

Terminix did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The plea agreement, which must be approved by a district court judge, includes $8 million in criminal fines, $1 million in restitution and a $1 million community service project for Terminix International Company and its U.S. Virgin Islands operation, the U.S. Justice Department said.

‘Like being in a torture chamber’

A criminal investigation began last year after two Delaware teens and their parents fell gravely ill and suffered seizures at the Sirenusa resort on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Employees of the pest control company had used methyl bromide to fumigate the unit below the villa where the family was vacationing, officials found.

“Via various means,” the Justice Department said Tuesday, “methyl bromide from the lower unit migrated to the upper unit of Building J, causing serious injury to and hospitalization of the entire family.”

Exposure to methyl bromide can result in serious health effects, including central nervous system and respiratory system damage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The chemical is a restricted-use pesticide that the EPA has considered “highly toxic” for more than two decades. The agency banned the indoor use of methyl bromide products in 1984.

A lawyer representing the family told CNN in September that the brothers were barely able to move months later, trapped in bodies badly damaged by the nerve agent.
“Neurologically, it’s like being in a torture chamber,” attorney James Maron said last year.

The teens’ father, Steve Esmond, was slowly improving, but still suffering from severe tremors, struggling to speak and unable to turn the pages of a book, Maron said. Their mother, Teresa Devine, had less exposure to the toxic gas and had made the strongest recovery, according to the attorney.

It’s unclear how the family’s been doing since. Their lawyer did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Feds: Restricted pesticide used in several locations

Court documents filed Tuesday allege that Terminix knowingly applied the restricted-use pesticide at the Sirenusa resort in St. John, at 12 residential unites in St. Croix and at another unit in St. Thomas between September 2012 and February 2015.

CNN previously reported that methyl bromide was used across the islands on different occasions by Terminix.

The company said last year that it had taken steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again, including halting fumigation in the U.S. Virgin Islands, reinforcing policies with employees and speaking to technicians about the specific products they use and how they’re applied.

After federal authorities began investigating, Terminix voluntarily stopped using methyl bromide in the United States and U.S. territories, except for one supervised government contract at the Port of Baltimore, the U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday.

“This settlement sends a clear message that the Virgin Islands will not tolerate such blatant disregard of our laws and will utilize the best avenue in seeking justice,” Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp said in a statement.

An investigation is ongoing, according to the Justice Department.

Last year Maron said Terminix had agreed to enter mediation, done by Ken Feinberg, who negotiated the settlements for the victims of the September 11 attacks.

CNN’s Dana Ford contributed to this report.

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