In the wake of recent federal court rulings that Hawaii counties don’t have the authority to regulate farming, it is now up to legislators to address growing concerns about pesticides.
With the legislative session starting Wednesday, state Sen. Josh Green from the Big Island is hoping to do just that.
Hawaii doesn’t have any laws regulating what pesticides are sprayed on or around schools. And the Department of Education blames a lack of money for its failure to implement a program to limit schools’ use of pesticides on their own property.
Meanwhile, unease about Hawaii’s $243 million seed industry has spurred more residents to ask questions about pesticides being sprayed on nearby fields.
At least 26 schools are located within a mile of large agricultural companies that spray restricted-use pesticides, according to the nonprofit Center for Food Safety. And over the years, many residents have complained about sicknesses they attribute to pesticide drift, some of which sent schoolchildren to hospitals.
Green, an emergency room physician from the Big Island, is worried that exposure to pesticides could be causing developmental disorders in young people. He is drafting a bill that would require users of certain pesticides to abide by disclosure requirements. It would also establish buffer zones near schools and hospitals.
“It’s pretty clear and simple to me that pesticide exposure is bad for children’s health and we can prevent that exposure by passing this bill without damaging Hawaii’s agriculture,” Green said.
There have been multiple reports of children and teachers falling ill and attributing it to pesticide drift from neighboring homes and fields.
It won’t be easy. Controversial bills have a way of dying early deaths in the Hawaii Legislature, even though Democrats overwhelmingly control both houses. For example, lawmakers for years have rejected measures to require labels on genetically engineered food. And while Green’s bill focuses on pesticides rather than genetically modified farming, it will likely attract similar supporters and opponents as the hot-button issue that has made Hawaii a flashpoint for the GMO debate.
To get his measure through, Green will have to overcome skepticism from some lawmakers who may see buffer zones as too intrusive, as well as likely opposition from the agricultural industry. The Hawaii Crop Improvement Association declined to comment for this story. But DuPont Pioneer, the largest U.S. producer of hybrid seeds for agriculture, said in an email from spokeswoman Laurie Yoshida that focusing on commercial agriculture companies ignores many pesticide users who aren’t involved in farming.
Still, Green hopes he has crafted a middle-of-the-road approach that will gain widespread support. Given that counties’ hands are tied by court rulings, his bill may be the best hope for local residents who want more regulation of pesticides.
Neither the state Department of Agriculture nor the Department of Education has any data regarding what kinds of pesticides are used on or near school property. The DOE also doesn’t track how many times schools have been closed because of concerns regarding pesticide use.
But there have been multiple reports of children and teachers falling ill and attributing it to pesticide drift from neighboring homes and fields.
At Waimea Canyon Middle School in west Kauai, so many students and teachers were sent home sick from 2006 to 2008 that the county helped pay for a study to figure out what was happening.
The study found traces of stinkweed in air samples from the school, which the state Department of Agriculture thought was the likeliest culprit. But the analysis also found small amounts of pesticides, including atrazine, chlorpyrifos and bifenthrin.
The Department of Agriculture said those chemicals could have evaporated off of the soil and that they were found in such tiny amounts that they didn’t warrant an investigation.
In response to public outrage, Syngenta agreed to stop spraying pesticides near the school. But many parents and teachers remain concerned.
Wil Okabe, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said he likes the sound of Green’s proposal and wants more disclosure of what chemicals are being sprayed near schools.
“I think the most important thing is communication to let people know what’s happening,” Okabe said. “Like a public service announcement — I don’t think that’s asking too much… We don’t need to have something really serious happen before we start to put in any type of legislation.”
Green’s proposal comes just months after a federal court shut down Bill 2491, Kauai County’s attempt to establish buffer zones for pesticide spraying and require more disclosure from large agricultural companies about what pesticides they are using.
A Hawaii County partial ban on growing genetically modified crops was also struck down by the court, and a Maui County moratorium on GMO farming is on hold while a federal judge mulls its legality.
“It’s pretty clear and simple to me that pesticide exposure is bad for children’s health and we can prevent that exposure by passing this bill without damaging Hawaii’s agriculture.” — state Sen. Josh Green
All of the county measures were spurred by growing fears of genetically modified crops and their associated pesticide use. But the Kauai County and Hawaii County rulings concluded that it’s up to the state to regulate agriculture.
Green’s measure seeks to respond to local residents’ concerns about seed companies, but he also says he doesn’t intend to single out big agribusinesses — the regulations would also apply to government entities that spray large amounts of restricted use-pesticides.
Specifically, Green wants to impose buffer zones for pesticide spraying near schools and hospitals. His bill, which is still being drafted, may also seek to require farms to put up warning signs and notify neighbors before they spray pesticides, as well as fill out annual reports about pesticide use.
“I know that the activist community would probably like to see a more rigorous ban and I think the chemical companies wouldn’t like to see any regulation,” Green said. “It’s a balanced approach.”
He also wants schools to put up notices at least a day before they spray pesticides. The Department of Education used to have an Integrated Pest Management program that trained staff on how to apply pesticides, but the program was cut and the department says it doesn’t have enough money to fully implement it again.
Many states regulate what kinds of pesticides can be sprayed on school property and often require schools to notify parents beforehand.
Janie Shelton, a scientist from the University of California at Davis, said buffer zones are important to protect people from pesticide drift, although they can be difficult to enforce.
Shelton, who spoke at an informational briefing Tuesday at the Hawaii Capitol, recently completed a study of pesticides and their impact on pregnant women in California that concluded babies were more likely to be autistic and have developmental delays when their mothers lived close to the fields.
“The policy around pesticides is kind of like a cat and mouse game,” Shelton said, adding that scientists often must demonstrate harm before legislation can be passed.
Mark Phillipson, spokesman for Syngenta, thinks that a new law establishing buffer zones near schools and hospitals might not affect his company. Syngenta’s Oahu location isn’t near schools or hospitals and its Kauai operations already abide by buffer zones, he said, as part of the “Kauai Good Neighbor Program.”
The voluntary program was implemented in December 2013 after Kauai County passed Bill 2491. Syngenta sends emails to residents in Waimea letting them know what pesticides will be sprayed the following week.
While downplaying the effect of the potential regulations on Syngenta, Phillipson raised questions about how it could impact smaller farms and asked why agriculture is being targeted when other businesses and residents use pesticides as well.
According to the state Department of Agriculture, farms make up about a fourth of the 1,600 licensees for restricted-use pesticides.
Although Green sees his proposal as a compromise, seed companies will likely put up a fight. When Syngenta and other biotech companies sued Kauai County after the passage of Bill 2491, they said that the measure impeded their right to protect proprietary information.
Politics will also come into play. Even if Green’s bill passes the Senate, it could be stymied by House lawmakers such as House Agriculture Committee Chairman Clift Tsuji. He’s concerned that buffer zones could hurt farmers by limiting what land they can use.
Meanwhile, Rep. Della Au Belatti, who chairs the Health Committee in the House, said she supports the idea of more disclosure about pesticide use. But buffer zones, she said, “would require more discussion.”
Political analyst Neal Milner doubts Green’s legislation has much of a chance this session.
“It’s not a Legislature that responds dramatically to events by getting legislation through,” Milner said.
He called the shift of the focus from genetically modified organisms to pesticides a “nifty strategy” but said, “the odds are against it passing.”
Ashley Lukens from the Center for Food Safety disagrees. She says that by now, Hawaii’s movement against GMO farming is no longer a fringe issue. She said the debate has been reframed from questioning the cultivation and testing of genetically modified seeds to investigating the health and environmental impacts of such farming — essentially, pesticide exposure.
She also thinks that recent victories in Maui and with county council races on Kauai have shown lawmakers that the movement can deliver the votes.
“Because we’re growing, we have a lot more middle-grounders at the table that are pounding the halls at the legislators right now,” she said.
“It doesn’t take a scientist to know that when you spray things in the air and there’s winds, it’s going to carry.” — Malia Chun, west Kauai resident
That could mean good news for residents like Malia Chun, who lives on a Hawaiian homestead in west Kauai.
When Chun received her home six years ago, she was overjoyed — her family had been on the wait list for decades, and as a single mother, she had been struggling to raise her children.
But three years after moving in, she developed asthma. In the morning and at night she saw and heard tractors rolling through the fields owned by Syngenta near her house. She said she could often smell the stench of chemicals, and her eyes burned.
Chun supports the idea of buffer zones around schools and hospitals, as well as more disclosure. But even if Green’s bill passes, she’s still skeptical about whether it would help.
“It doesn’t take a scientist to know that when you spray things in the air and there’s winds, it’s going to carry,” she said.