UPDATED 3/7/2013 10 a.m.

CORRECTION: Larry Jefts Farms does not use atrazine as a weed killer, as stated in a previous version of this story.

For decades, Hawaii sugarcane and pineapple farmers, and increasingly seed corn growers, have sprayed the weed killer atrazine on their fields.

When it rains, the popular herbicide is swept into rivers and streams, threatening plant and aquatic life. Atrazine has been shown to reduce reproduction in fish and amphibians, cause birth defects, and according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is toxic to algae and plant life.

But a Civil Beat review of state records and interviews with local regulators shows Hawaii’s rivers, streams and coastal waters are not being tested for the chemical even though the EPA established water safety levels a decade ago and last year required states to regulate pesticides under the Clean Water Act.

The state doesn’t track where the chemical is being sprayed and in what quantities.

And atrazine users are largely left to police themselves when it comes to complying with strict EPA guidelines that limit spraying and require setbacks from water resources.

“We don’t test,” said Thomas Matsuda, manager of the pesticides program at the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, the state agency responsible for carrying out EPA regulations. “Basically, the label is the law. So basically whoever is the applicator is supposed to comply with whatever the label states.”

Matsuda said he is worried about pesticide levels in Hawaii, but that monitoring how and where atrazine is sprayed is difficult because the state only has six inspectors statewide. And the only way that the state agriculture department can obtain specific information from atrazine users is to open a formal investigation, he said.

Civil Beat reviewed sales records of atrazine in Hawaii kept by the agriculture department. The documents are kept for the most part in paper form and total hundreds of pages.

It’s impossible to gain precise information about atrazine use from the records. But they do indicate that some of the largest buyers of atrazine include Hawaii seed corn companies, such as Monsanto and Mycogen.

EPA Criticized for Loose Oversight

Critics of atrazine use have long argued that the EPA has failed to protect ecosystems from the chemical. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington D.C. environmental group, sued the agency in 2003, arguing that lax regulations failed to protect endangered species from atrazine in waterways throughout the mainland.

in recent years, the EPA has required testing of 40 waterways in agricultural areas in the Midwest and southern U.S. but not in Hawaii. The tests revealed widespread atrazine contamination, according to a report by the NRDC. In one-third of the waterways, tests came back with atrazine levels five to 10 times higher than the EPA’s safety limit.

Now, with the EPA set to begin a formal review of atrazine in June, critics hope that the agency will follow the example of Europe and ban it or impose stricter controls. The European Union has prohibited the use of atrazine since 2003 out of concern that the herbicide can easily contaminate groundwater.

Atrazine is one of the top two herbicides used throughout the United States and has shown up repeatedly in drinking water in Hawaii — something that the state does monitor. Much of the contamination is in Hilo on the Big Island, according to data from the Hawaii Department of Health. The levels are within the EPA’s safe standards for drinking water, and state officials say they don’t warrant concern.

The “exposure that the (EPA) allows is at least 300 to 1,000 times more protective than the level where the agency saw no adverse effects in the most sensitive animal species tested,” said Gary Gill, the health department’s deputy director for environmental health.

And Syngenta, the Swiss-based company that manufactures most atrazine — which has been on the market for 50 years — says it’s safe.

There “are nearly 7,000 studies that establish the safety of atrazine,” said Ann Bryan, a spokeswoman for the company. “That would include human health and ecological areas that include amphibians.”

But some scientists warn that new studies show atrazine can be harmful to human health, particularly fetuses, at levels below what the EPA has established as a safe limit, and say that plants and aquatic life can be impacted at even lower levels.

Hawaii Has Specific Issues

The chemical poses a particular threat in Hawaii because of the islands’ geography, according to Joy Shih, a doctoral candidate at the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. She thinks atrazine should be banned.

“I think of Hawaii as one giant watershed,” she said. “There is no inland, from the tops of the mountains, everything flows into the ocean. So anything that you apply that is water soluble ends up in the ocean. Fish are definitely affected and coral is affected.”

Shih said that studies show that atrazine causes coral bleaching and harms phytoplankton, which rest at the bottom of the aquatic food chain.

“It’s like grass in a prairie,” she said of phytoplankton’s significance. “It’s analogous to that.”

In fish and amphibians, atrazine can also reduce immunity from infections, disrupt sex hormones and slow growth rates, according to Jason Rohr, a specialist in ecotoxicology at the University of South Florida, who conducted a review of the scientific literature on the chemical.

“I think there are very clear, consistent effects on fresh water organisms,” he said. “Unfortunately, the EPA has chosen to ignore most of those studies.”

The EPA did not respond to questions from Civil Beat.

But the agency has been conducting extensive reviews of the scientific literature, according to information on its web site.

Clean Water Act Doesn’t Lead to Testing

Pesticides have long been regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. But in 2009, a federal court ruled that the EPA must also regulate pesticides under the Clean Water Act.

Environmentalists who have worried about the impact of pesticides on water ecosystems hoped the ruling would lead to greater oversight of chemicals like atrazine in streams and rivers.

But Hawaii waters will go untested.

The state health department came up with rules last year for regulating pesticides in waterways under the Clean Water Act. But the rules that it adopted don’t require waterways to be tested, according to Gill, nor do they establish limits on atrazine levels in waterways.

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