State regulation of pesticide use is hampered by a lack of money despite aggressive measures passed by neighbor island counties demanding more disclosure about spraying.

Concerns about how pesticides used by large agricultural companies are affecting the land, air and water have grown along with the debate over genetically modified crops in Hawaii.

State officials at the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health say both agencies are understaffed and underfunded, the result of budget cuts incurred during the 2009 financial crisis.

Kauai pesticides, mana march, protective equipment

A Kauai protestor opposes pesticide use by seed companies.

Sophie Cocke/Civil Beat

Hawaii’s counties aren’t waiting for the state to act. Maui County’s recently passed moratorium on genetically engineered farming is the latest indictment of Monsanto’s farming practices, which many fear increase pesticide use despite the company’s statements to the contrary.

State lawmakers are taking notice. Sens. Josh Green and Russell Ruderman are planning to introduce a package of bills to strengthen the state’s oversight of pesticide use.

Green, who leads the Senate Health Committee, said seeing how much money Monsanto spent to oppose the moratorium helped spur him to make pesticide regulation among his top three priorities when the Legislature resumes in January.

“When (biotech companies) start fighting with special interest money at the magnitude that they did, you know something’s up,” said Green, adding that he wants to encourage an open discussion among stakeholders. “I hope it won’t be so contentious, but I’m ready for the fight.”

State of Pesticide Regulation

The Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Branch is in charge of regulating pesticide sales, distributing licenses for restricted-use pesticide applicators, and ensuring that applicators comply with the law.

The agency used to have five pesticide inspectors on Oahu, but now it only has two. On Kauai, there’s been just one pesticide inspector for the past decade. In total, there are just five pesticide inspectors statewide, one fewer than last year.

Last session, officials asked the Legislature for eight more positions and lawmakers agreed to fund four, including three inspectors and one case developer who reviews pesticide inspection reports. But the positions haven’t been filled yet, said Thomas Matsuda, program manager at the Pesticide Branch.

The agency’s pesticide inspectors generate about 70 reports a year, and just one case developer, Avis Onaga, reviews all the pesticide inspection reports.

“I think the counties have awakened a sleeping giant.” — Sen. Josh Green, Health Committee chairman

The backlog of cases means she’s still reviewing some reports from 2012 while also trying to catch up on reports from 2013 and 2014, Matsuda said.

An increase in public information requests has added to her workload and further slowed progress on the backlog, Matsuda said.

That’s the same reason Onaga gave last year when she told Civil Beat she had only completed seven of 72 investigations of possible pesticide law violations on Kauai alone. This year, Onaga referred questions to Matsuda, who said he wasn’t sure exactly how large the backlog was.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health manages testing for pesticides in drinking water, food and soil. Food samples are taken monthly, drinking water annually and soil on a case by case basis, said Gary Gill, deputy director of environmental health.

In May, the state released the results of a point-in-time study of Hawaii’s streams, which detected small concentrations of chemicals in all 24 tested sites that were below state and federal thresholds. The study also found that the highest concentration of pesticides were in urban areas rather than near farms.

Gill would like to conduct more studies, but said the Department of Health doesn’t have enough money to do so.

“We’d like to follow up periodically and test air, soil and water, and groundwater in particular, but there’s no resources to put to it,” Gill said.

Not All Pesticides Are on Farms

Ken Kakesako, deputy director of the Department of Agriculture, said the issues of pesticide use and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) shouldn’t be conflated.

About 1,600 people or companies have licenses to apply restricted-use pesticides, and only 25 percent of them are farm-related.

The rest include professional pesticide applicators, such as exterminators that fumigate homes to get rid of termites and other pests.

“It’s misleading to only look at agriculture,” Kakesako said. “It shouldn’t be such a central focus if the conversation is truly about pesticides.”

“We’d like to follow up periodically and test air, soil and water, and groundwater in particular, but there’s no resources to put to it.” — Gary Gill, deputy director of environmental health

Plus, Kakesako said, his understanding is that the purpose of GMO crops is to decrease the use of expensive pesticides.

How genetically modified crops affect pesticide use is a key point of contention between seed companies and their detractors. Monsanto contends that genetic engineering decreases the need for pesticides and ran ads during its Maui County campaign claiming that the GMO farming moratorium would lead to more pesticide use.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Center for Food Safety has made pesticide spraying a central part of its campaign against seed companies in Hawaii and pointed to a study that shows increased use of herbicides.

Due to public concern about pesticides on Kauai, the Department of Agriculture has been working with seed companies through the Kauai Good Neighbor program, in which companies like Syngenta disclose what kinds of restricted-use pesticides they spray each month and abide by buffer zones.

Still, critics say the program doesn’t provide enough information about when or where chemicals will be applied.

While Kakesako isn’t particularly worried about pesticide use from seed companies, he plans to ask the Legislature for funding for four more positions for the Pesticide Branch to help the agency meet its current mandate.

More Resources on the Way?

Green said he’s been supportive of the Department of Agriculture’s past efforts to get funding for additional positions, and that he would back its request this coming session “if it means tighter regulation.”

The senator from the Big Island also believes the Department of Health should get more money to increase its staff and conduct more tests of pesticides and other toxins. In addition to large farms, he’s worried about chemicals in urban areas that could cause developmental disorders.

But that’s not all — Green also may introduce a bill that mirrors a Kauai County measure that imposed stricter disclosure requirements upon seed companies and required them to abide by buffer zones when spraying pesticides.

The Kauai County Council approved the bill a year ago, but a federal judge ruled that counties don’t have the authority to regulate pesticide use.

Ruderman, who leads the Senate Agriculture Committee and is also from the Big Island, said he is considering introducing a bill that would explicitly allow counties to regulate pesticide use if they choose to do so.

Green agrees with Ruderman that the counties should have some control. Green thinks Kauai’s bill, in addition to the GMO farming bans passed on the Big Island and in Maui County, illustrate that residents want more regulation.

“I think the counties have awakened a sleeping giant,” he said.

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