The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is launching an investigation into whether state agencies discriminated against Native Hawaiians on West Kauai and Molokai when licensing pesticide use on nearby farms.

The nonprofit law firm Earthjustice filed an administrative complaint last fall contending that the state Agriculture Department and Agribusiness Development Corporation are not doing enough to protect Native Hawaiians from the impacts of pesticides applied near their homes.

The state agencies receive federal funding that requires compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

A sign protests Monsanto pesticide use along the main road in Kaunakakai, Molokai. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Lilian Dorka, director of the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office in Washington, wrote in a letter to Earthjustice on Thursday that the agency acts as a neutral fact-finder and will begin gathering information.

Dorka wrote that the investigation will seek to answer whether the DOA and ADC discriminated against fieldworkers and Native Hawaiian residents of West Kauai and Molokai while administering the pesticides program and licensing and leasing state land.

The agency will also review whether the state is complying with regulations requiring policies and procedures to prevent discrimination.

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said that it’s rare for the EPA to investigate Title XI complaints.

“We’ve been … saying for a long time now that the state has not been doing its job in terms of protecting people from pesticides,” Achitoff said. “We’ve tried to get the state to do its job but looks like EPA is going to have to do its job and make sure that the state is taking care of all of its citizens and in particular Native Hawaiians.”

Scott Enright, who leads the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, said Thursday that he’s open to the investigation and willing to help.

“We have a working partnership with the EPA,” he said. “We welcome them coming in and taking a look to see what’s going on.”

But he suspects that the agency won’t be able to substantiate Earthjustice’s claim, noting that a government-funded study on Kauai found no statistically significant adverse health impacts from pesticide use on the island. The report also recommended additional data collection and monitoring.

It’s not the first time the EPA has looked into large-scale agriculture on Hawaii. The agency is seeking to levy a more than $4.8 million fine against Syngenta for violating pesticide regulations last year that led to the hospitalization of multiple field workers on Kauai.

The EPA is also investigating Monsanto’s pesticide use on Maui and a second incident involving a Syngenta worker who got sick in January.

The issue of pesticide use by large agricultural companies has been the subject of contentious debate in Hawaii for several years. Three counties tried to regulate the seed industry but a federal appeals court ruled only the state can regulate agriculture. The state House killed a bill Thursday that would have required large farms to disclose details about what chemicals they apply near schools, hospitals and other areas.

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