The County of Hawaii voted last month to ban the use of most non-organic hebicides on county land and facilities, including county-controlled parks, roads, trails, bikeways, sidewalks, drainage ways and waterways.

The ban would be implemented gradually over a four-year transition period and establishes a “vegetation management transition committee” to oversee the transition from herbicides to safer alternatives.

County Bill 101 specifically bans 23 of the most commonly used herbicides including glyphosate, the active ingredient to Roundup, the most commonly used herbicide on earth.

Monsanto, the manufacturer, has been successfully sued in various lawsuits asserting that Roundup causes cancer.

Mayor Harry Kim still hasn’t announced whether he’ll sign the bill or veto it.  He has already asked the two departments affected, Parks and Recreation and the Highway Maintenance section of Public Works, to analyze the costs and impacts of the legislation.

Patches of herbicide-killed weeds such as this one near Hilo Harbor could be a rarer sight if a new council-approved ordinance becomes law.

Allan McNarie

He said the parks department had already reduced herbicide usage by about 40% in the past three years, using measures such as spraying saltwater on weeds or using goats and sheep to eat them.

“This is obviously an important bill,” he said. “I haven’t talked to anybody who doesn’t think we should be more aware of this issue.”

The bill sailed through earlier readings with unanimous consent, but lost three votes in the final reading: Council Chairman Aaron Chung, and council members Sue Lee Loy and Herbert Richards III.

Richards, a veterinarian, felt the bill could be a stalking horse for a wider ban that would include agriculture use. He pointed out that two of the banned herbicides can only be legally used in Hawaii for corn and soybeans.

Chung also thought that the herbicide ban was too broad. He and Lee Loy both pushed for an amendment which would exempt Hilo Golf course, fearing that greens maintenance would be impossible without herbicides.

Rebecca Villegas, the bill’s sponsor, declined to insert such an amendment in the bill.

“The science and technology and the traffic is there to show that residents near golf courses are affected” by herbicide use on golf courses, she said.

She held up the International Audubon Society’s award-winning Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf as an example how golf courses could be run “greener.”

But even the Audubon-certified golf courses are not required to be herbicide-free, though the program does set up best practice standards that minimize and control their use.

Completely organic golf courses are possible, but exceedingly rare. Perhaps the best known example is the Vineyard Golf Course in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, which has replaced pesticides entirely with “bio-stimulants” and organic fertilizers. If the Hilo Municipal Golf Course actually succeeds in eliminating herbicides, it will join such a rare elite that the fact it is herbicide-free could become a tourist draw just like the Vineyard course.

“I have no problem with banning glyphosate,” Chung said. But he felt that the rationale for what was included in the ban — especially the inclusion of the agricultural chemicals — wasn’t clearly explained.

Villegas responded that these were the most commonly used herbicides in the world today, and that the agricultural herbicides had been included as a precaution, in case someone tried to reclassify them later for other uses to take advantage of the ban.

The agricultural community was divided about the bill.

Representatives of the flower and nursery industries testified against it.  Organic farmers, of course, favored it. A number of those who testified in favor of the bill identified themselves as small farmers.

But one opponent, a local farmer, testified that, “It’s totally irresponsible to ban safe tools.”

The biggest block of agricultural workers present at the hearing, however, were beekeepers, who strongly supported the bill. Glyphosate, they said, could be lethal to bees, who carried it home to their hives with the pollen and nectar they collected, so it could spread to even bees who’d not been in direct contact with it.

Recent studies have shown that glyphosate can affect the gut bacteria of honeybees, making them more susceptible to infections, and may be affecting their ability to navigate.  This all may be at least a contributing factor to colony collapse disorder, which has been affecting the bee population worldwide.

This reinforced the experience of local beekeepers.  “Those that have been sprayed, die,” one of them stated flatly.

“We’re losing 60 to 70% of our colonies,” said another.

“The irony is that some of the people who are afraid of this depend on honeybees,” to pollinate their crops, noted Harry Holm, president of the Big Island Beekeepers Association.

The council also heard from people who spoke of personal damage from herbicide spraying on themselves.

“I get a fever, I lose my energy,” said Linda Holman, who said her symptoms repeatedly coincided with spraying in a nearby county park.

The county also heard testimony of someone who’d done such a transition successfully in Hawaii. Maui County has already successfully transitioned from herbicides to organic solutions, though it has no law in the books that made it do so. Former DOT Highways Superintendent Stephen Rodgers headed that effort.

“I eliminated the use of those products on Maui, Molakai, and Lanai,” he told the Hawaii County Council. Furthermore, he added, “We did not have any budgetary impacts.”

Parks and Recreation Department Director Roxcie Waltgen had told the committee that implementing the ban would require 400 additional park personnel.

But Rogers said he didn’t need more personnel. He would have to invest in equipment such as long-armed mowers and supplies such as weed matting and organic herbicides, but said that was offset by a 90% overall decrease in the cost of herbicides.

Also testifying was Autumn Ness of Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit that helped retrain the Maui crews.

Ness explained the organization’s “bottom up” approach: concentrate on fixing the soils instead of killing the weeds. In some Maui parks, for instance, the group tested overly compacted soil on sports fields, loosened and fertilized them, allowing them to grow healthy grass again instead of weeds.

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