Now that Kauai’s Joint Fact Finding Study Group has released the final version of a report on pesticide use on the island (the report was circulated publicly in draft back in March), the path to action is clear for the State of Hawaii.

The report has shown conclusively the insurmountable obstacles that failing to collect adequate data on pesticide use places in the path toward properly understanding the health risks of these toxic substances. Those risks might be slight, severe or some place in between, but we won’t know what they are until the data is collected, analyzed, made public and understood by the agriculture industry and the public alike.

On Kauai and throughout the Hawaiian Islands, that’s a prospect the industry has fought for years to avoid, arguing that it’s looking out for consumers through responsible practices, that adding new regulation would result in greater costs being passed on to consumers and that the specifics of its pesticide application is proprietary information.

A protestor at a 2013 action in Kauai stands against pesticide use by seed companies on the Garden Isle.

A protestor at a 2013 action on Kauai stands against pesticide use by seed companies on the Garden Isle.

Sophie Cocke/Civil Beat

But as we argued when the JFF study group’s draft report came out a little more than two months ago, without knowing how much, how often and what kinds of pesticides are being applied, it’s hard to draw credible scientific conclusions regarding health and environmental impacts.

Gov. David Ige and state Board of Agriculture Chair Scott Enright have had two months to review that draft, which isn’t dramatically different from the final, particularly in its recommendations on fundamental issues. Chief among them is the report’s initial proposal, aimed squarely at Ige: Ensure stronger agricultural, environmental and health data collection and surveillance.

“Because the Legislature largely controls the Executive’s budget, the Governor’s office must champion pesticide issues and manage internal budget allocations to match this priority,” the report said. “In addition, the Governor should ensure that the state agencies identified … for specific recommendations have sufficient resources to implement these new actions as well as perform their existing pesticide-related responsibilities.”

If the recommendations stopped there, they would still be well-focused to do Hawaii an enormous service. The truth is, the Ige administration already has considerable authority to begin moving forward in ways that could make a difference.

The governor should move aggressively and appropriately now where he and his executive branch departments can. Assured the administration is serious, perhaps agricultural interests will join in working toward the needed solution here rather than using its heft to endlessly block and defend.

The JFF study group notes that responsibilities for such regulation would take place in multiple administrative areas, and so properly calls out the necessity of cooperation: “In the realm of the pesticides discussed in this report, agriculture, health, and environment are integrally related which makes coordination across departments and legislative advocacy essential.”

More Voices For Key Advisory Committee

For starters, the group recommends that Ige and Enright expand the makeup of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, which was established to assist the Department of Agriculture in establishing rules and policy to properly regulate the use of pesticides.

Largely an insiders group with significant representation from agricultural, pesticide and landscape industries, the advisory committee should be expanded to include “representatives from the County Mayors’ Offices, medical experts, the (Department of Education), community representatives near major agricultural operations, and knowledgeable NGO scientists with appropriate backgrounds,” the study group recommends.

At minimum, such an expansion would help build credibility for an important committee that flies so far below the radar, it’s practically invisible (try searching for any meaningful information on the committee, including its membership, on the State of Hawaii website — go ahead, we’ll wait).

The study group recommends the newly constituted advisory committee should establish new, conservative standards regarding acceptable exposure to pesticides over time, revise and expand the voluntary “Good Neighbor Program” for pesticide use disclosure by agribusiness, and establish buffer zones that include tree and shrub “green screens” between areas where pesticides are used and surrounding communities.

Perhaps most importantly, the advisory committee would also evaluate and make specific recommendations to the Legislature to update Hawaii’s pesticide laws and regulations, under the study group’s recommendations.

That’s turf that the Department of Agriculture doesn’t appear to want to give up. In a response to the report issued the day the report was made public, Agriculture noted it “has already proceeded with a review and an updating of Hawaii’s pesticide laws and regulations,” though what process the department is following and whose recommendations are being taken into account is nowhere to be found.

Ige said the “most important takeaway” from the report “is that there is a lot we don’t know” and said his administration is already prioritizing some recommendations for short-term action. That is exactly the right response.

Worse yet, the statement prominently repeated that same arguments that Enright made loudly following the release of the draft report: The JFF study group found no causal relationship between pesticide use and human health problems and no evidence indicating harm to flora and fauna.

If Enright, Ige or any member of Hawaii state government is tempted to repeat those maddening phrases again, we caution them to take a deep breath and close their mouths. Reciting them over and over in response to a report that painstakingly documents how impossible it is to get basic data regarding pesticide use is not only unconvincing, it looks downright shady. To do so in a statement that simultaneously complains about “inaccurate (pesticide exposure) claims made by the public, mostly on social media” directly undermines the credibility of the department’s position.

But we don’t suspect that’s where Ige is headed with all this. In a statement last week, Ige said the “most important takeaway” from the report “is that there is a lot we don’t know.” The governor said his administration is already prioritizing some recommendations for short-term action, and that none of the recommendations are being rejected.

That is exactly the right response to the hard work of a volunteer group that was mobilized by the state Department of Agriculture and the County of Kauai after a federal court overturned a Kauai ordinance in 2014 that would have regulated pesticides and genetically modified organisms.

Big Agriculture had seats at the table as part of that volunteer group, but petulantly walked away from the process over input it found objectionable. Industry reps continue to be harshly critical of the group’s work.

Not exactly the way a truly good neighbor should behave.

The JFF study group report certainly isn’t perfect, but it is replete with valuable recommendations that could lead to a new era of transparency for those who use pesticides along with a new level of peace and reassurance for those who live, study and work downwind from agricultural operations.

Gov. Ige is right to focus on the lack of knowledge that has led some members of the pubic to their current state of anxiety regarding transparency and safety. As he and his administration continue to consider the report’s numerous other recommendations, he should ensure that Enright and his other Cabinet appointees are similarly focused, so that they may begin to tackle work that may begin now and begin preparing for a legislative session in 2017 where some recommendations will need to be addressed.

Likewise for Senate President Ron Kouchi of Kauai and other legislative leaders named in the report. The lack of data fueling the deepest fears regarding pesticide use won’t be fully addressed until the Legislature and the governor require it — a reality they’ve avoided session after session.

Beginning steps outlined in the report are appropriate now, but the 2017 Legislature must address the data gaps head on and require those businesses using toxic chemicals in farming to meet a new level of disclosure that the public both wants and deserves.

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