Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho has nominated Syngenta spokeswoman Beth Tokioka to the county’s Board of Water Supply despite concerns about the seed company’s record on water quality.

The County Council is scheduled to consider the appointment Wednesday. Tokioka, who spent two decades working in county government, is backed by letters of support from prominent business leaders and other community members.

But Councilman Gary Hooser from Kapaa said he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to appoint Tokioka to the Water Board given her current employment at Syngenta.

Ten employees went to the hospital on Wednesday at Syngenta Kauai after walking onto a field where a pesticide had been applied just 20 hours earlier. Four still haven't returned to work.

Syngenta is suing Kauai over required disclosures about pesticide use.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

The Swiss-based company sells seed corn and pesticides and has a checkered history on water quality. Four years ago, Sygenta paid $105 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by water utilities in the Midwest that said the company contaminated their water supply with atrazine, an herbicide that Syngenta manufactures, sells and applies to its crops.

The Kauai Board of Water Supply even voted to join that class action suit to receive up to $10,000 for testing water for atrazine.

“I’m not questioning Beth’s integrity or character, but I think appointing a representative of Syngenta to this particular position is insensitive and shows poor judgment,” Hooser said.

Lawsuit Over Pesticide Disclosures

Syngenta is currently suing the county to prevent mandated disclosure of what pesticides it uses, where and in what amounts.

Tokioka’s ties to Syngenta aren’t the only area of concern. Kauai Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura said she’s worried that Tokioka may have a conflict of interest on any Water Board decisions that affect Lihue-based Grove Farm because Syngenta is a lessee.

Grove Farm owns 38,000 acres on Kauai and is one of the county’s largest private landowners.

“I don’t believe she can serve two masters,” Yukimura said, “the public interest of the county, which she is obligated to serve as a member of the Water Board, and the interest of Syngenta to keep a good relationship with Grove Farm.”

Carvalho could not be reached for an interview but wrote in an email that he nominated Tokioka because of her extensive experience in government.

“She is well versed on numerous issues from environmental to business, housing, planning, community, water and so on,” wrote Carvalho.

It wouldn’t be the first time someone with ties to Hawaii’s seed industry served on a water-related board. Last year, environmental and Native Hawaiian groups opposed Gov. David Ige’s nomination of Bill Balfour to another term on the state water commission.

Balfour is a former consultant for Monsanto, another global seed company, and also worked many years for the agricultural company American Factors, which later became Amfac. The state Senate confirmed Balfour’s appointment despite the opposition.

“I think it’s only going to further alienate people from the system.” — Ashley Lukens, Center for Food Safety

Tokioka, who also could not be reached for an interview, wrote in an email that if there appears to be a conflict of interest between her work at Syngenta and matters before the Board of Water Supply, she would consult the Board of Ethics and recuse herself if necessary.

That’s good enough for Yukimura, who said that she plans to vote for Tokioka on Wednesday despite her concerns.

“I hold her in highest esteem and I think there’s a big potential conflict of interest which I will trust her to handle properly,” Yukimura said. “I think Beth’s administrative ability and ability to do good public policy is pretty good as long as there’s no conflict of interest. If she is free to really make her independent decisions as a citizen then I think it works.”

Paul Achitoff, an attorney at the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice, said the perception of a conflict is a problem.

“I think it shows poor judgment to have a representative of any company who has a record of pollution serving on a board that’s supposed to be managing that,” he said. “I don’t see how that serves the public interest or gives the public confidence that they’re going to be properly dealing with situations, most obviously violations.”

Department Can Act Autonomously

Tokioka said the mayor sought her out for the job and that she’s familiar with the workings of the water board due to her former jobs as the county’s director of economic development and director of communications.

She joined Syngenta last year as the company’s Kauai community outreach manager.

If her nomination is approved, Tokioka said her goals include ensuring the department operates efficiently, provides good customer service and collaborates with stakeholders like businesses and other government agencies.

Kirk Saiki, manager and chief engineer of the Kauai Department of Water, said if drinking water were contaminated and required remediation, the department would take action immediately and wouldn’t necessarily need board approval.

Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, flew to Hawaii from Washington, D.C. to defend county GMO and pesticide regulations.

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff, left, and Center for Food Safety executive director Andrew Kimbrell, defended county GMO and pesticide regulations at a recent federal hearing. Syngenta and other seed companies sued Kauai County to prevent a pesticide disclosure law from taking effect.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

“It doesn’t really matter if it’s Syngenta or Joe’s Plumbing down the street,” Saiki said. “If we find contamination in the water … we are going to take action on it.”

Kauai Water Board Chairwoman Laurie Ho said that Tokioka would be one of seven members and would have to undergo ethics training.

Saiki said the department doesn’t have any current concerns about the quality of the drinking water and conducts regular testing for possible contaminants.

If the agency were to find contamination, the Board of Water Supply could be asked to increase the department’s budget for water monitoring or consider action against responsible parties, such as litigation.

The Kauai County Charter requires a board member to disclose an “interest as might reasonably tend to create a conflict with his duties or authority” and recuse him- or herself.

Yukimura said that would apply to Tokioka if Grove Farm were to come before the Water Board, even if Tokioka doesn’t have a personal financial stake in the landowner.

“Somebody who is obligated to Grove Farm who is sitting on the water board could be making decisions that are not serving the public interest,” said Yukimura.

Ashley Lukens, who leads the Hawaii chapter of the national advocacy group Center for Food Safety, feels similarly about Syngenta-related matters.

But unlike Yukimura, Lukens fears that even if Tokioka were to recuse herself, the appointment may undermine the public’s trust in government.

“I think it’s only going to further alienate people from the system,” Lukens said. “People are going to believe that (the board is) biased and it’s unduly influenced by industry, even if it’s not.”

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