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A week ago, two legislative committees approved a slew of bills aimed at banning certain pesticides, funding studies and requiring large agricultural companies to disclose when and where they apply the chemicals.
But activists pushing for more regulation of large farms aren’t celebrating yet. Some lawmakers on other committees aren’t planning to call hearings for the bills or say that they haven’t made up their minds. Others won’t answer questions about the measures.
It’s become an annual ritual for leaders of groups critical of large seed companies to crowd the halls of the Legislature and demand that the state address concerns about chemicals used by companies like Monsanto. The agricultural industry has so far successfully staved off additional regulation, contending that it’s not necessary and it unfairly targets farmers.
The stakes are particularly high this year because after activists spent years advocating at the county level for bills cracking down on the seed industry, laws approved on Kauai, Maui and the Big Island were voided by federal appeals court rulings that concluded counties don’t have the right to regulate agriculture in Hawaii.
House and Senate committees dealing with the environment and higher education have scheduled hearings on Wednesday and Thursday for proposals dealing with buffer zones and funding for pesticide studies.
“I do think we’ll see some things move further, at the very least, more than we’ve ever seen before,” said Rep. Chris Lee, who leads the House environmental committee and introduced several bills involving pesticide regulation and disclosure.
Like Lee, Sen. Josh Green thinks there’s “a slightly higher chance” than in past years that one of the bills could make it to the finish line because of the court ruling and a Kauai government study suggesting that the state should institute mandatory pesticide reporting and buffer zones.
But the vocal advocate for more regulation is cautious, saying, “I don’t know that any of my colleagues have fundamentally changed their positions.”
Many key lawmakers don’t want to discuss the issue, including House Speaker Joe Souki, Rep. Sylvia Luke and Sens. Jill Tokuda and Rosalyn Baker. None agreed to be interviewed for this report despite repeated requests. Behind closed doors, they are making key decisions about whether or not to call hearings for bills or which committees the measures should go to.
The Senate environmental committee approved several proposals, including three bills to fund additional data collection and monitoring and to add a medical expert to the state’s pesticide advisory committee.
Those measures are now in the hands of Tokuda, who infuriated activists two years ago by refusing to call a hearing on buffer zone legislation.
Meanwhile in the House, Souki referred two measures related to mandatory pesticide disclosure and banning glyphosate to an extra committee this week. That means the committee chairmen — Reps. Angus McKelvey and Ryan Yamane — must call hearings for the proposals by Friday for them to stay alive.
McKelvey said he’s not planning to call a hearing for any of the three pesticide-related bills referred to his committee on consumer protection. They propose a ban on chlorpyrifos and a call for a change in the membership of the pesticide advisory committee.
The representative said he was told by Souki that the measure sent to Yamane, House Bill 1282, is the “vehicle” for pesticide-related proposals in the House, which means it’s the preferred measure for approval.
McKelvey thinks whittling the bills to fewer measures makes sense because it’s less confusing.
“We’re just too overloaded and there’s so many different versions floating around,” he said.
Even though he’s not going to call hearings on the measures, McKelvey is hopeful that the House will pass some version of a bill to regulate pesticides this year, although he doesn’t think it’s fair to focus entirely on farmers.
“I think there’s a very good chance if we can focus on one vehicle and have one encompassing discussion,” he said. “I think the chances diminish quite considerably the more bills you have floating around.”
Yamane didn’t return a call Tuesday to say whether he plans to schedule a hearing for his Water and Land Committee.
To pass a bill, lawmakers must find middle ground on an issue that’s polarizing. Many activists for more regulation fear that agricultural pesticide use is contaminating the environment and harming their health.
The Kauai study said there’s no statistically significant evidence to prove that, but it called for ramping up data collection and monitoring and coming up with a precautionary buffer zone policy. That’s what Ashley Lukens, who leads the Hawaii Center for Food Safety, recommends.
From her perspective, requiring agricultural companies to report where they apply pesticides, when and in what amounts is a modest request. California has been collecting that information since 1990.
Meanwhile, seed industry representatives and Gov. David Ige’s administration say that there’s no additional need for regulation or disclosure of pesticide use by large farms. The governor’s package includes one bill that would boost funding for the Agriculture Department, and the agency’s executive director, Scott Enright, has been promising to roll out a statewide voluntary reporting program for seed companies’ pesticide use for more than a year.
Bennette Misalucha, director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, the local trade group for the seed industry, said she supports the governor’s stance.
“We are in favor of providing additional resources to the Department of Agriculture,” she said, noting that the industry supports “whatever the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and Department of Health feel is appropriate. … The biggest problem really on pesticides is the fact that we need to educate our regular homeowners on the issue of pesticides.”
That rings true to Rep. Lynn DeCoite, a farmer from Molokai. She fears more regulation will make it harder for her and other farmers to earn a living, and lists other issues like second-hand smoke, sewer overflows and homeowner pesticide misuse as more pressing.
Like McKelvey, DeCoite believes that if the Legislature is going to demand pesticide use disclosure, it shouldn’t be limited to agriculture.
The Department of Agriculture deals with many instances of misuse of pesticides by homeowners, but there are also problems with farmers and large seed companies misusing chemicals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is seeking to fine Syngenta $4.8 million after several farmworkers got sick last year.
Enright said he’s concerned about requiring large companies to disclose their pesticide use because he thinks it’s a slippery slope toward imposing more regulations on small farmers.
The governor said in a press conference last week that pesticides are regulated by the federal government and that his administration is focused on “science-based” policies and enforcing “pesticide laws currently on the books.”
“We certainly would want to ensure that any pesticides being applied in our community are being applied safely and do not impact schools and other facilities,” Ige said. “We think we can do that within the current authority that we have.”
House Majority Leader Scott Saiki echoed Ige’s skepticism about whether there’s actual harm caused by agricultural pesticide use.
“My general position is when there is a demonstrated public health and safety risk, then it may be appropriate to increase regulation and oversight,” Saiki said. “I’m not sure at this point and that’s why the hearing process is important.”
The focus on coming up with scientific proof that agricultural companies are harming neighboring communities poses a catch-22 for advocates for mandatory pesticide use reporting. Some scientific studies on whether pesticides applied to farms are harming neighbors can’t be conducted without more data collection, but many say there isn’t enough evidence to justify gathering additional data.
Still, studies in California show proximity to agricultural fields is associated with health problems like autism and birth defects, according to J. Milton Clark, former senior health and science adviser for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois School of Public Health.
Clark helped advise the Joint Fact-Finding Study Group on Kauai last year that evaluated existing research on seed companies’ impact on Kauai. He wrote in an email that he supports the bills that are before Tokuda’s committee.
“The JFF properly concluded there is inadequate pesticide data to determine if residents most proximal to agricultural operations (e.g., Waimea area) are at risk,” he said. “It is not technically difficult to collect the proper data to assess risks to public health as such information has been collected and evaluated in numerous published studies.”
He recommended that the state fund an environmental sampling study of residential properties, along with testing urine samples, with the help of national pesticide experts.
Rep. Richard Creagan, a physician and farmer from the Big Island who leads the House Agriculture Committee, is confident that there’s already enough evidence to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that the EPA has considered banning due to its health risks. Along with Lee and Sen. Mike Gabbard, Creagan is among the legislative committee chairs who has already approved pesticide regulations.
“That’s an example of a fairly specific bill that I think you can make a strong case for doing something now and not wait for the EPA,” he said.
Still, he says he and his colleagues are in some ways stumbling in the dark.
“We just don’t have enough facts, but we still have to make decisions,” Creagan said.