County to fund study of pesticides on Westside

The Kaua‘i County Council on Wednesday unanimously approved the first reading of a bill to appropriate $50,000 as a grant to the state Department of Agriculture to be used to conduct a pesticide study on the Westside.

Councilman Mel Rapozo introduced the legislation in response to various incidents of chemical odors affecting students and residents in Waimea and Kekaha between November 2006 and April 2008.

Bill 2278 would provide county money, which would be supplemented with state funds and technical assistance, to identify and monitor samplings of “odiferous sources.” The Office of Economic Development would administer the grant.

The council will hold a public hearing at 1:30 p.m., Sept. 24, at the Historic County Building.

“This bill is basically putting our money where our mouth is,” Rapozo said. “I’m trying to get something done on the Westside. I think it’s a priority issue.”

There have been at least four incidents over the past two years in which dozens of Westside students and faculty have suffered flu-like symptoms from unidentified odors and been forced to evacuate schools and seek medical treatment.

The state departments of Health and Agriculture have been unable to confirm the source.

Many community members suspect pesticide sprayings on nearby fields leased by Syngenta Seeds, but authorities have pointed at a noxious weed called cleome gynandra.

In a July 3 letter to Rapozo, the Department of Health responded to an earlier request for an investigation by saying the Department of Agriculture was considering funding a pesticide study from November through February in the proximity of the incidences on the Westside. However, due to limited funding availability, the study would not be able to characterize odiferous compounds produced by the weed, according to the letter.

“If the county wishes to initiate a study, the Department of Agriculture can provide technical assistance and up to $50,000 from the Pesticides Use Revolving Fund to support testing and assessment of pesticide residues in the ambient air, providing that the county fund an assessment of the ambient concentrations of odiferous substances from cleome gynandra,” the document continues.

The state has asked the county to determine the scope of the study.

“I don’t have a problem stepping into areas where the state is dragging their feet,” Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura said, but added that she wants a description of the study and more details on how the funding would be used.

Kaua‘i resident Barbara Elmore questioned using county taxpayer money for a state responsibility, but council members said this is not the first time they have had to take the initiative.

The county cannot let this issue “get caught up in bureaucratic wrangling,” Councilman Tim Bynum said.

The study will help the county learn more information about the Westside incidents and possibly prevent it from happening again, Councilwoman Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho said, noting that the allegations could be false.

Council Chair Jay Furfaro said the grant represents an appropriate step forward for the “right reason and the right people.”

The county in the past has provided funding for a coqui frog eradication effort and the Civil Air Patrol — both state issues, council members said.

On Nov. 14, 2006, several Waimea Canyon students went home sick after reportedly breathing a noxious odor and suffering dizziness, headaches and nausea.

A Department of Agriculture report determined the smell was from stinkweed, not Syngenta’s legal application of a pesticide. Syngenta, which has denied all claims that its sprayings caused the illnesses, removed the weeds after the incident.

Two months later on Jan. 23, 2007, teachers suffered watery eyes and irritated skin while a field adjacent to the school was being sprayed.

On Jan. 25 this year, some 10 students and a teacher spent the morning in the emergency room at Kaua‘i Veterans Memorial Hospital after inhaling a noxious odor. Authorities, unable to determine the source, blamed weeds.

In February, Syngenta agreed to stop spraying near the school until Dec. 31, and the state Legislature backed off a bill, introduced by Kaua‘i Sen. Gary Hooser, proposing a pesticide-free buffer zone around schools statewide.

Hooser, who has fought for answers, has said there is no doubt there is a problem.

The Hawai‘i State Teachers Association in February lodged complaints, calling on authorities to conduct toxicology tests on the students and staff exposed to the pesticides. The Department of Health said that is not its practice.

Most recently, students and teachers suffered headaches, breathing difficulty and nausea on April 15 after a pungent chemical smell from an unidentified source wafted through Kekaha School and St. Theresa’s Elementary.

Spraying was again suspected, but not confirmed.

• Nathan Eagle, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or neagle@kauaipubco.com

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