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A controversial measure that would have required monthly disclosure of pesticide use in Hawaii has died in the Legislature, essentially ensuring that the public won’t be able to find out details about what pesticides are being sprayed in the state and where.
Senate Bill 1037 passed the Senate but House Agriculture Committee Chairman Clift Tsuji failed to give it a hearing last week before a key legislative deadline. The measure would have required agricultural companies to submit monthly reports of what pesticides they use and in what amounts.
Advocates for disclosure often point to California as a model for Hawaii to follow, but disclosure here has run up against fierce resistance from members of the local agricultural industry who called the proposed requirements burdensome.
Currently the state collects data on the sales of restricted use pesticides, but not comprehensive information on how, when or where they’re applied. On Kauai, seed companies report their monthly pesticide use through the Good Neighbor Program, but that is voluntary and limited only to that county.
Tsuji, a representative from the Big Island, said that he didn’t call a hearing for SB 1037 because he had already considered two similar proposals earlier this session and was concerned about the bill’s broad application to all farmers.
SB 1037, introduced by Sen. Josh Green also from the Big Island, originally targeted only large farms, reflecting concerns about the environmental impact of large companies like Monsanto that compose the state’s $243 million seed industry.
But Sen. Jill Tokuda from Kaneohe expanded the bill’s applicability before passing it out of the Ways and Means Committee.
The measure’s demise is disappointing to House Environmental Committee Chairman Chris Lee, who introduced a similar bill that also didn’t survive Tsuji’s committee.
Lee, from Kailua, emphasized in a phone interview that requiring companies to disclose what pesticides they spray would make it possible to conduct meaningful analyses of health problems that have been reported anecdotally in rural areas such as west Kauai.
“Without disclosure of what’s being sprayed or in what quantities, we just can’t do that,” Lee said, adding: “There seems to be a lot of pushback and a lot of resistance for something that should be a no-brainer in Hawaii.”
While Hawaii grapples with whether to require disclosure of pesticide use from agricultural companies, residents of California have been able to view pesticide use data for the past 25 years.
The state has had a comprehensive pesticide use reporting system since 1990 and requires growers to submit monthly reports of pesticide use including the field location, amount of chemicals applied and the month and date of application.
Agricultural use is defined broadly and includes pesticides applied to parks, golf courses, cemeteries, pastures and along roads. The main exceptions are home and garden use and most industrial and institutional purposes.
“The idea behind this is that when they report to us what has been used, we will know in detail what has been used, where it’s been used, how it has been used,” said Charlotte Fadipe, spokeswoman for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, in a phone interview.
The data collected is mapped and residents can look up their towns to see what’s being sprayed nearby.
Fadipe said that in addition to the state-level requirements, counties are allowed to impose additional regulations on pesticide use.
“There seems to be a lot of pushback and a lot of resistance for something that should be a no-brainer in Hawaii.” — Rep. Chris Lee
That’s a point of contention in Hawaii. Although the state doesn’t have a law specifically barring counties from regulating agriculture, a federal judge struck down a Kauai County ordinance that sought to require disclosure of pesticide use from large agricultural companies as well as force them to abide by buffer zones.
Even apart from county regulations, the data that the state of California collects on pesticide use has allowed researchers to conduct studies determining whether certain chemicals being sprayed are associated with health risks.
A 2011 study by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley used the state’s data to discover that exposure to a combination of maneb and paraquat increases the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
A 2014 study by researchers at the University of California at Davis used the state’s pesticide use data to determine that pregnant women who were exposed to several common agricultural pesticides were more likely to give birth to children with developmental delays and autism.
One of the researchers of the UC Davis study, epidemiologist Janie Shelton, said in an email that she believes California’s pesticide reporting requirements can serve as a template for other states.
She said she would recommend a spatially explicit monitoring system in Hawaii where applicators must report “1) what they sprayed (compound and active ingredient), 2) where they sprayed it (address, GPS coordinates, etc.), 3) when they applied it (date and time), and 4) how much was applied.”
But while some support a comprehensive reporting system like California’s, critics argue that the costs outweigh any potential benefits.
Renee Pinel is president and CEO of the Western Plant Health Association, a trade organization for fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers, agricultural retailers and biotechnology companies in California, Arizona and Hawaii.
Pinel said in a phone interview that implementing a pesticide use reporting system in Hawaii that mimics California’s could cause small farmers to go out of business. Large farmers have the capacity to hire people to keep records, but onerous reporting requirements would be too expensive for small farms, she said.
Even if the disclosure reports were limited to the largest pesticide users, Pinel said they’re not necessary because studies by the federal Environmental Protection Agency already illustrate the impacts of pesticides.
She argued that California’s pesticide regulatory process is an anomaly among states in part because it is expensive.
“You can’t simply look at California … and think that is going to be necessary or economically apply to other states,” she said. “If you want to do that default — ‘Why can’t we be California?’ — you’re looking at significant cost.”
California’s system is well-established, but other states have struggled to follow suit.
Oregon passed a bill requiring pesticide use reporting in 1999, but the program has stalled with inconsistent funding.
Lack of money has also plagued regulators in Connecticut, who don’t have enough resources to ensure that pesticide use is being accurately reported.
An analysis from the Maryland Department of Agriculture found that lack of money has similarly hindered the implementation of pesticide use reporting laws in New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York.
Budget cuts at the Hawaii Department of Agriculture have already contributed to a backlog when it comes to reviewing pesticide inspection reports. The agency’s director Scott Enright called SB 1037 “a costly proposition” and testified that if the bill were approved, the department would require more staff.
The budget for the agency’s pesticide branch in fiscal year 2015 was just over $2.5 million, a fraction of the department’s $45.5 million budget.
In contrast, the cost of compiling, analyzing and posting data on pesticide use in California was about $800,000 in 2013-2014, or 1 percent of the state’s $80 million pesticide regulatory program budget.
Pinel from the Western Plant Health Association estimated that if the costs to agricultural retailers and farmers were added in, as well as the price of auditing the information collected, the real cost of implementing California’s pesticide reporting program would be as as much as $15 million.
Concerns about proprietary information could also impede any effort to mimic California’s disclosure requirements.
Although lawmakers passed a bill two years ago to require the state to make public data about the sales of restricted use pesticides, the law hasn’t been implemented because officials are afraid the state will get sued.
Anne Lopez, spokeswoman from the state Attorney General’s office, said officials are concerned that companies simply won’t report certain information including what pesticides that are being used and where, even if it’s required by law.
That doesn’t make sense to activists like Ashley Lukens, who directs the Hawaii chapter of the national nonprofit Center for Food Safety. She said the withholding of data on pesticide use takes concerns “to the level of hysteria.”
She supports the Good Neighbor Program, but thinks it should be expanded statewide and made mandatory.
“We know that when there’s transparency, the next step is accountability,” Lukens said.
That rings true to Jim Raelson, a pediatrician from Kauai. He said it’s impossible to even begin analyzing whether pesticides are affecting the health of his patients without any data. He also believes the Good Neighbor Program is not enough.
“We’re in a community where a lot of the pesticides are used, there’s every reason to believe that they have a potential of causing problems,” he said, citing an American Academy of Pediatrics report that warned of the dangers of exposing children to certain chemicals. “There is no reason why we should suspect agricultural companies of hiding data from us, nor should we make it a voluntary thing. It should be just a simple obligation of doing business here.”