LIHUE — Although relatively peaceful — other than the occasional snicker, laugh or boo from the audience — testimony during Wednesday’s public hearing on County Bill 2491 was full of emotion from both sides.
“Peacefully, this will commence,” one man in the crowd, dressed in pro-GMO blue, said before things got underway. “Unpeacefully, nothing gets done.”
The bill, introduced by Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser, would allow the county to govern the use of pesticides and genetically modified organisms on the island.
Those in support of the bill came dressed in red T-shirts, many with the words “Pass The Bill.” Those opposed donned blue shirts, which read “We Are Kauai Ag.”
While testimony commenced inside the Kauai Veterans Center, cheering, honking and sign waving continued outside, in both the parking lot and along Kapule Highway.
About 600 packed inside the venue, while hundreds more were kept outside.
“This is a public hearing,” Hooser said, before inviting the first to testify up to the microphone. “We’re here to listen to what you have to say.”
The first five speakers were invited by the council, and represented “various sides of the issue,” according to Hooser.
First up was Steven Savage, a consultant with more than 30 years of experience in agricultural technology.
As he did during a pair of forums earlier this week, Savage spoke about the necessity of pesticides in agriculture today. He said the Restricted Use Pesticides being used on Kauai are neither unique nor unusual.
“It’s not extraordinary chemicals. It’s not at extraordinary rates,” he said.
Most of the 22 RUPs being used on Kauai are herbicides, according to Savage, and “not particularly toxic to people.”
“We’re not talking about the 1960s when we’re talking about the chemicals here,” he said. “There’s a lot of rules. There’s a lot of regulation.”
Chris Broussard, vice president of the Hawaii Nurses Association, told the council that “the nurses of Hawaii fully support” the passing of the bill.
“Protecting our citizens, the land, our water and ocean, should be the No. 1 priority,” he said.
In his experience, Broussard said he has seen patients of all ages suffering from various health problems after being inadvertently exposed to chemicals that the agricultural companies promise are safe. Those include respiratory and neurological problems, tremors, abnormal blood tests and kidney and liver malfunction, he said.
“What is truly at the core of this issue is our right to know what we’re being exposed to,” he said. “The fact that corporations want to hide this information sends a vary obvious message. There’s something worth hiding.”
Kevin Folta, as associate professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, said the way biotechnology is framed in Bill 2491 is “inconsistent with what we know about the technology and its safety.”
GMOs, or transgenic crops, are some of the best studied and most analyzed plants on the planet, according to Folta, and used because they allow farmers to compete.
“Some of the provisions of 2491 will severely curtail the use and deployment of biotechnology throughout the world because Kauai is a winter nursery,” he said.
Folta added that he does not represent either side — red or blue — but came to testify on behalf of science.
“And science isn’t a democracy. It’s not about how many people stand up for it or against it. It’s about what the facts and the truth really are. This is good, solid technology, as evidence by its safe use for over 15 years.”
Dr. Judy Shabert, a physician and nutritionist who farms with her husband near Anahola, said today’s chemical pesticides have been linked to miscarriages, malformations, neurological deficits and cancer.
She reminded the council about the pesticides that have been found in and around Waimea Canyon Middle School, on Kauai’s Westside.
“How would you guys feel if you did not vote to try to protect those students and those teachers?” she asked the council. “We want you to pass this bill. Please, for all of our sakes.”
Councilman Ross Kagawa did not care for Shabert’s attitude.
“You gave a great testimony. I like your passion. But you don’t need to point at us. We could do without that,” he said, drawing a stir from the audience.
Marjery Bronster, a lawyer representing DuPont Pioneer, said she was asked to look at the bill, as she has done with hundreds, if not thousands, of others.
“I believe, for a number of very serious legal reasons, that this bill, as proposed, is unconstitutional,” she said.
The biggest reason for that, she said, is because it is preemptive.
“You have heard many people talk about federal and state agencies, federal and state laws, that are regulating GMOs and pesticides within this county,” she said. “And when the federal government regulates, and particularly when the state does, it does not leave unlimited discretion for the counties to pass new laws.”
Hooser reminded Bronster that Bill 2491 has already been looked at by a number of attorneys, who came to “a different conclusion” about the bill’s constitutionality.
Cade Watanabe, spokesman for the Unite Here Local 5 union, said the community has the right to know the effects biotech companies are having here, and that the bill is a “reasonable and fair attempt” at protecting Kauai’s health and environment.
“We here shouldn’t be confused. The powerful players maneuvering about in our community have imposed on us the fear and threat of losing jobs,” he said. “It doesn’t do us, or this community, any good if the jobs we have aren’t enough to sustain our families, if they make us ill, destroy our lands or result in us inheriting a quality of life that is lesser than that of our mothers and grandfathers.”
Stephanie Iona, a Westside resident opposed to the bill, said her community is full of honest and hardworking people, who would never do anything to harm their own children.
“I don’t stand here alone,” she said. “I stand here with all the people from the Westside who are doing a good job and are against this bill.”
Dr. Lee Evslin, a local pediatrician, said the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement in November of 2012, which stated that pesticide exposure may be much more of a serious problem than previously realized, and that pediatricians “should support efforts to make pesticide-free zones around schools and other public places.”
“Of course we should have the right to know where and what pesticides are being sprayed,” he said.
Evslin brought with him a letter signed by 15 Kauai pediatricians in support of the bill.
Marc Lochner, a station manager for Syngenta, said the 500-foot pesticide-free buffer zone included in the bill would leave his company with about 10 percent of their farmable land.
“That’s going to put me out of a job,” he said. “That’s going to put the rest of my family out of a job. When I talk about my family it’s not just me and my wife. It’s everybody out here that’s in a light blue shirt. They’re all my family.”
Maya Gallo, a 20-year resident of Kauai, testified in support.
“Not only do I believe Kauaians have the right to know. We also have the responsibility to know,” she said. “We are stewards of this land. Yes to this bill.”
Approximately 25 people had a chance to testify in the first hour-and-a-half of the public hearing, which started at 1:30 p.m. and was expected to continue until at least 10:30 p.m.
A committee meeting on Bill 2491 has been scheduled for Monday.
• Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or email@example.com.