The lawyer for a Prosser farmer accused of illegally storing hazardous waste attempted to portray his client as incompetent to stand trial during a brief hearing Thursday.
Philip Andrew Whitney, 79, stood quietly wearing a maroon "Whitney Farms" jacket during his first court appearance.
Whitney has been evaluated by doctors at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle, as well as a private psychologist, and suffers from both long- and short-term memory loss, said Jim Egan, who is standing in temporarily as Whitney's defense attorney.
"Mr. Whitney has several issues," Egan told Superior Court Judge Vic VanderSchoor.
The judge appointed public defender Michelle Alexander as Whitney's lawyer after Egan said the man's only income comes from Social Security. VanderSchoor also postponed the arraignment until June 13.
Whitney is charged with a felony violation of the Hazardous Waste Management Act, which could carry up to a year in prison if he is convicted
Prosecutors say Whitney improperly stored tons of fruit pomace -- the remains of fruit after it has been pressed -- in large pits on his property, according to court documents.
Benton County Fire District No. 3 has described the pits, which were covered with soil that allowed them to blend in with the surrounding terrain, as "eternal burning pulp," with temperatures up to 500 degrees.
Three men fell into the pits between 1996 and 2011, suffering amputations and severe burns. They all sued Whitney, as well as Seneca Foods Corporation and Milne Fruit Products Inc. -- companies Whitney contracted with to haul away and 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, documents said. Hickle settled with Whitney for $1 million and both fruit producers for an undisclosed amount in 2003, three years before Hickle died.
Jon LeClaire also 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 he was trespassing.
An Environmental Protection Agency investigation began shortly after Benjamin Fox fell into one of the pits in 2011 and had 11 skin grafts for third-degree burns. Whitney had sold the property to Volpe Vineyards LLC, which includes members of the Fox 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 four feet deep. The investigation found a "fine dust-like material" in the deeper pits, with temperatures ranging from 800 to 1,100 degrees.
Prosecutor Terry Bloor said after the hearing that Alexander will be able to review Whitney's case and determine if an order should be sought to evaluate him at Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake.
"If she feels there is an issue of competency, then we'll address that, if not, then we'll proceed," he said.