Abercrombie stirs pesticide debate

LIHUE — Thanks, but no thanks.

That has been the reaction of several key supporters of County Bill 2491 to Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s announcement that the state will begin paying closer attention to community concerns about pesticide use on Kauai.

“The time for state gesturing and political maneuvering is over,” activist Dustin Barca said in a release Monday. “Real, firm mandates on pesticide disclosure are close at hand.”

Abercrombie says he and members of the Kauai legislative delegation have requested that agricultural companies “voluntarily” disclose their use of restricted use pesticides and implement buffer zones around schools and hospitals — two main issues addressed in the county bill.

Fern Rosenstiel, an activist and lead organizer in the development and passing of Bill 2491, said that while she is all for involvement at the state level, it cannot come at the cost of the county’s involvement.

“We need county protection. We are an island,” she said. “Oahu isn’t close enough to fully regulate the industry.”

Rosenstiel contacted the governor’s office Tuesday morning, kindly refusing his involvement at this time. She said concerned community members — including the thousands who marched earlier this month in the streets of Lihue — believe Abercrombie is simply trying to stop Bill 2491 from being passed.

“There is great concern that the governor’s intervention will be taken as a hostile overthrow of our voices here on Kauai,” she wrote in an email Tuesday to Vicki Borges at the governor’s office. “This issue has reached a critical point and is on the verge of teetering into social unrest.”

The council’s Economic Development (Agriculture) Committee is set to deliberate on the proposed county ordinance Friday, when several amendments will likely be introduced.

On Friday, Sen. Ron Kouchi and Reps. Jimmy Tokioka and Derek Kawakami met with members of Abercrombie’s staff to discuss the matter. Rep. Dee Morikawa was on Kauai and unable to attend.

“In reviewing testimony and in listening to the many concerns of community members, we felt that asking the governor to address this issue at this time would be advisable,” Tokioka wrote in an email Tuesday.

If a bill were to be introduced in the Legislature, it would take until at least May to be signed into law.

“The governor and his administration felt that this voluntary compliance would address many of the communities’ concerns and could be done in a more timely manner,” Tokioka wrote.

In monitoring the ongoing discussions of Bill 2491, Kawakami said he noticed a lack of communication and compromise, specifically when questions addressed to seed industry representatives by council members were met with silence during a committee meeting June 9.

Kawakami agreed it was important that something be done immediately.

“Because Bill 2491 has been in deliberation for some time with possible litigation pending, we wanted something that could be acted upon now,” Kawakami wrote.

If passed, Bill 2491 — introduced by Kauai County council members Gary Hooser and Tim Bynum — would require Kauai’s largest agricultural companies to disclose pesticide use and genetically modified organisms. It would also create 500-foot buffer zones around public areas and waterways and imposes a moratorium on the expansion of GMO fields and open-air testing until the county completes an environmental impact study.

In his release Monday, Abercrombie said farmers will comply on a voluntary basis with the temporary standards until department heads and stakeholders can develop necessary rules to create legislation for next session.

In addition to Friday’s meeting with local legislators, Abercrombie’s press secretary Louise Kim McCoy said the governor’s administration had previous meetings and discussions with the legislators and farmers, including Jerry Ornellas, Roy Oyama, Dean Okimoto, the state and local levels of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, and representatives from Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences and BASF.

Following Monday’s intervention, Hooser said neither he nor any other proponent of the bill was consulted by the governor’s office, and that the measures outlined in the governor’s proposal are not sufficient to protect the health of the Kauai community.

Alicia Maluafiti, executive director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, applauded the state for stepping in and recognizing its important role in regulating pesticides in Hawaii.

“Pesticides have played a major role in making our lives safer and in protecting our economic well-being,” she wrote in a statement Monday. “American farmers, including those on Kauai, are producing more food and fiber on less land than ever in history, and pesticides are partly responsible.”

Maluafiti added that pesticides are already thoroughly regulated at the state and federal levels, and that Kauai seed farmers are highly trained and careful users of all pesticides.

Andrea Brower, an advocate and researcher on sustainability and food security issues on Kauai, said the people on Kauai simply cannot wait for the state’s wheels to turn on weak, undefined promises.

“There have been serious health and environmental concerns in regards to the pesticide-seed industry for years,” she wrote. “When the county is finally making progress on beginning to address the issue, the sudden move by the governor for ‘voluntary action’ is weak at best, and a derailment at worse.”

Since being introduced in late June, Bill 2491 has received national attention. Supporters say the bill is about the community’s right to know what’s happening in its backyard, while opponents have voiced the bill unfairly targets the biotech industry and would negatively impact Kauai’s economy.

Over the past few months, the issue has grown increasingly divisive — a battle between pro-bill red and anti-bill blue (the colors adopted by the opposing sides). Lawsuits have even been threatened by the seed industry.

If passed, the county bill would impact the five heaviest users of restricted use pesticides, including biotech companies DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences and BASF, as well as Kauai Coffee.

Speaking on behalf of the HCIA, a nonprofit trade association of the seed industry in Hawaii, Maluafiti said “we all share the same concern for the community as others and strive to be good stewards of the land.”

“We look forward to working with the state on this important issue,” she wrote.

Morikawa said Abercrombie’s announcement came at a “really good time,” a time when many community members have been questioning state agencies and their lack of response.

“No one has really given the state a chance to really do something about this issue,” she said, adding that things seem to now be moving in the right direction.

Tokioka said it is important he and the other legislators obtain as much information as possible on this important issue.

“One of the steps we have taken is to ask the Department of Health and the University of Hawaii Cancer Research Center for more information and statistical data related to the effects of pesticides in our community,” he wrote. “We are also in the process of finalizing meetings to discuss the permit process of these pesticides with the EPA and the USDA.”

Abercrombie has also said he would work on restoring positions within and seek additional funding for state agencies to address pesticide compliance and conduct inspections.

While she found it encouraging that the Kauai community was able to finally get the attention of the governor and state, Rosenstiel said she was disturbed by the timing of Abercrombie’s announcement, the voluntary nature of the request, and the fact that it was arranged without consulting key on-the-ground people.

“When have they ever done anything voluntarily?” she asked, referring to the biotech companies. “Obviously, this (announcement) goes to show how unwilling the state is to take direct action, and shows why we need to take action on Bill 2491.”

• Chris D’Angelo, environmental reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

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