In the latest volley in a tense battle over a recently passed bill that would require biotech companies to disclose details about their pesticide use and farmers to acknowledge their genetically engineered crops, Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho vetoed it on Thursday
“I have always said I agree with the intent of this bill to provide for pesticide use disclosure, create meaningful buffer zones and conduct a study on the health and environmental issues relating to pesticide use on Kauai,” the mayor said in a statement. “However, I believe strongly that this bill is legally flawed. That being the case, I had no choice but to veto.”
UPDATE: Carvalho said that the bill ran afoul of a number of laws in an interview with Civil Beat, including the Right to Farm Act. He said that it preempted the state’s role in regulating pesticides and genetically altered crops and violated the county charter by allowing the county council to assign new functions to his department. “That’s not their role,” the mayor said, noting that only he has that power.
Reaction was swift. “I’m really flabbergasted,” Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser told Civil Beat. Hooser, who co-introduced the bill with Councilman Tim Bynum, added that, “It’s just unfortunate that the mayor did not see the urgency, the value and the need for this to pass.”
The county council is expected to convene a new hearing to vote on whether to override the mayor’s veto in the coming weeks.
The veto is likely to become a major issue in the mayor’s reelection campaign and supporters of the bill have already threatened to work to get Carvalho voted out of office over this move.
When word of the veto percolated through a crowd of dozens of the bill’s supporters who had convened in the Rotunda outside of the mayor’s office, people began to chant “Pass the Bill!” Part of the crowd then gathered outside of the mayor’s office before police threatened to arrest them for creating a disturbance.
Carvalho came outside and addressed the crowd. He was met with jeers.
The mayor told Civil Beat afterward that despite the potential political fallout from his decision, he had to do what he thought was right and he urged Kauai residents to voice their opinions peacefully. “To the people of Kauai and Niihau, everyone has the right to demonstrate,” Carvalho said. “Just make sure everyone does it respectfully.”
The bill primarily affects the four biotech companies operating on Kauai — Syngenta, DuPont-Pioneer, Dow and BASF. The measure requires the companies to disclose what pesticides they are spraying, where and in what quantities. It also requires buffer zones between biotech fields and public spaces that include schools, parks and hospitals. (Violators could be punished with stiff fines and even jail time.)
The county would also be required to conduct studies on the possible health and environmental effects of pesticide spraying.
Biotech industry representatives indicated that they would sue the county if the bill passed. During hearings on the bill, attorneys for the biotech industry also insisted that aspects of the bill could be overturned in the courts because it is “vague and ambiguous” and it could lead to the “illegal taking” of property.
But prominent environmental attorneys have spoken out in favor of the bill, arguing that it is legally sound.
Councilmembers said during hearings that they were willing to take a legal risk to protect the health of residents.
“The council made its decision that we weren’t going to be bullied by legal threats,” said Hooser. “We have lots of support legally and it’s the right thing to do.”
The bill has sparked intense and often emotional public debate, with issues of pesticide use often being confused or conflated with the science behind genetically modified organisms.
In September, large numbers of Kauai residents took to the street to march in favor of the bill, chanting “No More GMO!” and brandishing signs with slogans such as, “Don’t You Dare Poison Me!” and “Pass the Bill!”
Bill supporters and opponents, including employees of the biotech companies and their families, camped out overnight to secure seats in the Kauai County Council’s small hearing room.
The bill passed the Kauai County Council by a 6-to-1 vote on October 16 after a marathon 18-hour hearing. The final vote took place at 3:30 a.m. after extensive public testimony and haggling over amendments. Both the crowd inside the hearing room and outside the Kauai County Building grew restless. At one point, when it appeared that council members were going to delay a vote on the bill, supporters began screaming.
The mayor testified, asking council members to hold off on a vote so he could work with state officials to increase regulation of pesticide use, and make the law unnecessary. Carvalho expressed concerns that the bill would not withstand court challenges and overburden the island with the costs of enforcing it. His office estimated that the country would need to come up with $1.3 million by the middle of next year to pay for the bill.
But toward the end of the hearing, council members rejected the mayor’s arguments and expressed skepticism that the state would do a better job of monitoring pesticide use.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Russell Kokobun, director of the Department of Agriculture said that biotech companies had given them assurances that they would voluntarily comply with new rules governing pesticide disclosure.
The Kauai County Council needs five votes to override the mayor’s veto.
The vote to override the veto could be closer than the council’s original 6-to-1 vote on the bill. Councilwoman Nadine Nakamura, who voted in favor of the bill, has since taken a job as the mayor’s managing director. She has not yet been replaced.
You can read the mayor’s letter to the county council below. The documents also contain the legal opinion of the county attorney on Bill 2491. Council members voted to keep the legal analysis confidential earlier this month, arguing that disclosing it would amount to providing the biotech companies with a roadmap of the county’s legal defense in the event of a lawsuit. The mayor declassified the report on Thursday.