KENNEWICK, Wash. (AP) — A charge against a farmer accused of failing to properly store hazardous fruit waste that severely burned three people was dismissed Thursday because he has dementia, the Benton County prosecutor's office said.
Philip Andrew Whitney, 79, had been charged with a felony violation under the Hazardous Waste Management Act. Officials said three people were injured after falling into pits of boiling fruit waste on his property in Prosser, a city of about 5,700 about 200 miles southeast of Seattle.
The case was put on hold in June for a mental evaluation, our partners at
Private doctors determined that Whitney has memory loss, his lawyer, Jim Egan, told the court. Doctors at Eastern State Hospital diagnosed Whitney with dementia, Deputy Prosecutor Terry Bloor said.
Whitney had large pits full of tons of fruit pomace — the remains of pressed fruit, according to court documents.
Benton County firefighters described the pits as "eternal burning pulp," with temperatures of up to 500 degrees. They were covered with soil to blend into the terrain.
The three people who fell into the pits between 1996 and 2011 all sued Whitney, as well as Seneca Foods Corp. and Milne Fruit Products Inc. — companies that hired Whitney to dispose of industrial quantities of waste.
In 1996, 16-year-old Phillip Hickle had both legs amputated after falling into one of the pits while quail hunting on Whitney's property. Hickle settled with Whitney for $1 million and both fruit producers for an undisclosed amount in 2003. Hickle died three years later.
Jon LeClaire fell into one of the pits in 1996, suffering second- and third-degree burns. But his case against Whitney and the fruit processors was dismissed after it was determined that LeClaire was trespassing.
An Environmental Protection Agency investigation began shortly after Benjamin Fox fell into one of the pits in 2011. He had 11 skin grafts for third-degree burns.
Whitney had sold the property to Volpe Vineyards LLC, which includes members of Fox's family, in 2010. In his lawsuit, Fox claimed that Whitney did not disclose the existence of the waste pits before the sale.
The EPA found three pits on the farm — two that were about 20 feet deep and a third that was 4 feet deep, court documents said.