A nonprofit environmental law firm is urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to revoke the Hawaii Department of Agriculture‘s authority to investigate and enforce federal pesticide law.

Paul Achitoff, an attorney at Earthjustice, sent a letter to EPA officials Thursday citing the Agriculture Department’s limited staff and persistent backlog of cases since at least 2012.

“The public is at risk and the Department of Agriculture is asleep at the wheel,” Achitoff told Civil Beat.

County-level efforts to regulate genetically engineered crops and pesticides would be unnecessary, if state lawmakers were to set a statewide standard.

Concerns about pesticide use by large agricultural companies have sparked complaints to the Department of Agriculture.

Zeynel Cebeci/Wikimedia Commons

Achitoff’s letter relied on information from the EPA’s annual reports on Hawaii’s pesticide program.

In the latest report, which covered Oct. 1, 2014, to Sept. 30, 2015, the EPA criticized the state Agriculture Department for providing “short” inspection reports that “lacked critical information” and noted that the agency had a backlog of 700 inspection files, some of which dated back to 2008.

“This is a major concern, and has resulted in delays for both state and federal enforcement proceedings,” the EPA wrote. “Federal inspection reports should be referred to EPA at least quarterly per the cooperative agreement. Recent receipt of reports for inspections that occurred as early as 2012 were not received until 2015. Many of these cases were referred to EPA for enforcement action but were closed solely based on our statute of limitations.”

Paul Achitoff

Paul Achitoff

Earthjustice

Scott Enright, director of the Agriculture Department, said the agency has improved since then and that the number of backlogged cases has dropped by 66 percent over the past year, from 750 to 250.

UPDATED EPA required the department to complete an action plan in May for reducing its backlog further. The plan identified the need to buy new lab equipment, noting a 10-month backlog for analyzing samples.

The agency currently has seven pesticide inspectors and hopes to hire four more by the end of the year, Enright said.

Scott Enright

Scott Enright

Office of the Governor

While the department only has one case developer reviewing inspection files, it recently designated one position to handle public records requests due to a uptick, a responsibility that previously fell to the case developer and contributed to the backlog.

The state agency will request funding for two more case developers next year, according to the action plan.

“Because of the political nature of pesticides now, the department understands that we need to move forward and expedite this, to do it as quickly as we can and as thoroughly as we can,” Enright said. “We picked up our game because we know it’s the expectation and we’re doing a better job.”

EPA spokesman Dean Higuchi said the federal agency was just made aware of Achitoff’s letter and is confirming its receipt.

“At this point we need to review their request, review what’s in the letter and what they’re asking,” he said. “There’s not much more I can say at this point.”

If the EPA were to seek to revoke the Agriculture Department’s authority over pesticide enforcement, the state agency would have 90 days to correct the situation before the EPA would take over enforcement power, Achitoff wrote.

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