A movement to strictly regulate commercial pesticide use on Kauai that began in 2013 has resulted in new initiatives from two state agencies.
The heads of Hawaii’s Agriculture Department and Health Department announced plans Wednesday that they say should allay concerns of residents about chemicals sprayed on crops — not just on the Garden Island, but statewide.
The plans call for testing for pesticides in surface waters, improved interagency response when emergencies involving pesticides arise and greater efforts to share information with islanders, including posting more information online.
Agriculture Department Chair Scott Enright said his boss, Gov. David Ige, is “committed to public health and safety — that is his first priority.”
Enright and Health Department officials said at a press conference downtown that they have been taking “a closer look” at pesticide regulatory actions and the effect on the environment.
“I think that for the past four years the community has been demanding regulatory action, and what you see in this announcement is not about regulation.” — Ashley Lukens, Hawaii Center for Food Safety
But Enright and Health Department Director Virginia Pressler also reiterated a key point made in a joint fact-finding report about pesticides released this spring that assessed the existing data and identified gaps in information when it comes to making policy decisions.
The point, they said, was that no environmental or public health problems linked to pesticides could be demonstrated so far.
Pressler and Fenix Grange, the acting director of the Health Department’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office, said that more data could reveal evidence of health and environmental damage.
That is why, they said, it was important to apply the new initiatives statewide.
Enright cautioned that he did not know what more data would reveal. He said his agency responded to concerns of Kauai residents by funding the fact-finding report, and that agencies would be partnering with the U.S. Geological Survey to sample surface water. It is those waters, he said, where evidence of pesticide harm would most likely be discovered.
Ashley Lukens, director of the Hawaii Center for Food Safety, a critic of genetically modified farming and related pesticide use, said she was disappointed with Wednesday’s announcement.
“I think that for the past four years the community has been demanding regulatory action, and what you see in this announcement is not about regulation,” she said. “And these are the regulatory bodies that we have to protect our health and environment. All they continue to do is fail to use their powers.”
The Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, the lobbying group that represents local seed companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer and Dow AgroSciences, welcomed the state’s latest efforts.
“Hawaii’s seed industry has been responsible stewards of Hawaii’s natural resources for 50 years,” said the association’s executive director, Bennette Misalucha. “Their employees are farmers, neighbors, and parents who care about the well-being of their communities and the future of Hawaii. In addition to complying with applicable state and federal laws, the seed companies are committed to being good neighbors, and have therefore agreed to participate in the Department of Agriculture’s new voluntary Good Neighbor Program.”
A joint press release from the agriculture and health departments did not actually say anything about expanding the Good Neighbor Program — something the Agriculture Department said over a year ago that it would do.
But Enright said during the press conference that the Good Neighbor Program, already in place on Kauai, would be rolled out starting in January. Under the program, some companies that spray pesticides voluntarily make details available to the public — something critics argue should be mandatory.
The Kauai County Council passed legislation in 2013 that required heavy users of restricted-use pesticides such as the biotech companies to disclose what pesticides they were spraying, where and how much.
The law also required farmers to report any genetically altered crops they were growing, and created buffer zones between fields sprayed with pesticides and schools, parks, medical facilities and private residences. And it required Kauai County to study whether pesticides are harming the environment or the health of residents.
The law was challenged along with related GMO laws in Maui and Hawaii counties. Last month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the counties and instead determined that agriculture in Hawaii is controlled at the state level.
Enright said his department had already moved in several ways to address concerns about pesticide use.
They include hiring five additional inspectors on top of the six already on staff, cutting a backlog of investigations from 780 cases to 150, and purchasing laboratory equipment to “stay on top” of the investigations, he said.
“Hawaii’s seed industry has been responsible stewards of Hawaii’s natural resources for 50 years.” —Bennette Misalucha, Hawaii Crop Improvement Association
The Agriculture Department is working with the Department of the Attorney General to update pesticide laws and regulations.
“We want to assure the community that we take their concerns very seriously, and the governor as well,” said Pressler, who added that Ige was being briefed regularly.
“These are tough issues and more work is essential to bring the community back together,” said Grange.
But Lukens, the food-safety advocate, said the state needs to do much more.
“I think the medical literature is completely clear that pesticide exposure is bad for children’s health, and it is incumbent upon the state to ensure that those health impacts are prevented,” she said.
Lukens said she was not allowed to attend Wednesday’s press conference. A Health Department official said only news media representatives were allowed in.