LIHUE — The state of Hawaii has effectively foresaken its responsibility to ensure that biotech companies are not risking public and environmental health, several members of the Kauai County Council said Monday, so it was up to the county to pick up the slack.

Basically, the state has done a bad job of enforcing landmark federal environmental laws, according to the councilmembers who spoke at a hearing on a bill before the council’s Economic Development and Intergovernmental Relations Committee that would increase regulation of genetically altered crops and pesticides.

“We are here today because the state has failed,” Councilman Mel Rapozo said.

Failure may explain the origins of the far-reaching Bill 2491, which would require the four large biotech companies on Kauai to disclose what pesticides they spray, where and in what amounts. It also mandates that the county conduct an extensive environmental study of the potential health and environment risks of local pesticide and GMO use. Other elements in the bill include tests on water, air, soil and potentially even the residents.

What remains unclear, though, is who would pay the millions of dollars that it might cost the small island government for the monitoring described in the legislation.

Up until now, there’s been no formal estimate of the potential cost of Bill 2491. But an assessment released Monday by Council Chair Jay Furfaro puts the price tag at $4.4 million over the first two years. The yearly monitoring cost after that would be $911,000.

It’s still not clear whether the county can afford the bill and, if not, whether they can tap into other possible funding sources that range from federal or state resources to the biotech companies themselves.

What seems clear is that there is not yet any definitive funding plan.

A lot is riding on Bill 2491. Monday was the second hearing before the committee on an issue that has sparked intense emotional responses, impassioned arguments and a battle of data between supporters and opponents, both locally and nationally.

The underlying intensity has been on display here in recent days, even if committee members calmly deliberated in the Kauai County Building on Monday after politely questioning state and county officials, and representatives of the agricultural companies.

Outside, dozens of agricultural workers lounged on the lawn — many dressed in blue T-shirts that read: “Proud to Be Supporting Kauai Ag” — to listen to sound speakers that broadcast the proceedings inside.

Just 24 hours earlier, the lawn in front of the building was engulfed in a sea of at least 1500 anti-biotech protestors, including many red “Pass the Bill” T-shirts.

The State’s Kuleana

Hawaii’s Department of Health and Department of Agriculture are the two main state agencies responsible for enforcing federal and state laws related to pesticide use. Pesticides are regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act and under the Safe Drinking Water Act. In 2009, a federal court also ruled that the EPA must regulate pesticides under the Clean Water Act.

But both agencies have complained in the past about limited funds and a staff that is too small to fulfill such a broad mandate.

In interviews with state officials and in a review of records earlier this year, Civil Beat found that farming operations that use pesticides are largely left to police themselves.

Gary Gill, deputy director for environmental health for the Department of Health, flew in from Oahu to represent the state and answer questions from part of the Kauai County Council.

Committee members complained to Gill that the health department hadn’t been responsive to community complaints. They questioned how the state could know whether or not pesticides were poisoning streams if it doesn’t actually test waterways. They also expressed concerns that pesticide labeling requirements don’t take into account what they believe to be the intensive spraying of some biotech companies. (The companies refuse to disclose how often or how much they spray.)

“Those are very reasonable questions,” Gill responded. “And I think they reflect the core of concerns out there in the community — the concern about what we don’t know. The Department of Health does not know the acute impact of the aerosols or the dust or the runoff from a recently sprayed or a currently being sprayed field.”

Gill explained that the state only tests for pesticides in drinking water and on produce.

But in response to a state resolution passed earlier this year, he said that the health department plans to conduct tests on the presence of pesticides in groundwater, streams and the soil. Gill added that he expects preliminary data from the testing as of the middle of 2014.

The health department is in the process of determining which chemicals it will test for and where. The west side of Kauai, which is an area of concern for some residents, may or may not be tested. Gill said that health officials won’t do regular testing, but they will seek out samples of “worst case scenarios” when the concentration of pesticide is highest.

The state health department is limited in how much it can do, however. The state Legislature didn’t fund the study. So far, up to $70,000 has been gathered from the coffers of the departments of Health and Agriculture, and the U.S. Geological Survey, he said. That is a tiny fraction of what would be necessary for meaningful monitoring.

Meanwhile, Kauai County is left to grapple with concerns about ongoing pesticide use.

Larry Dill, a county engineer, testified on Monday that the county also lacked personnel and expertise to carry out key measures in Bill 2491. Such staff would have to be hired, he said.

And someone would have to pay them.

Rapozo asked: “So you would work with the state — Department of Ag and Department of Health – to find out how we can do their job using county money?”

“Exactly,” replied Dill.

The committee deferred a vote on the measure after hours of testimony and debate about amendments that stretched past 9 p.m.

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