Seven years ago, on Sept. 27, 2013, after a marathon, 13-hour hearing, the Kaua‘i County Council Committee on Agriculture and Economic Development, of which I was the chair, passed out of committee Bill 2491 “as amended.”
I remember clearly the emotionally-charged evening, and also remember thinking that if we deferred the matter any further that it would most certainly not pass. So rather than postpone the decision another day, our committee just powered through until late into the evening.
It’s only fitting that documentary filmmakers and local residents Keely and Pierce Brosnan and Teri Tico chose this week to offer the award-winning film, “Poisoning Paradise,” to be viewed for free on Vimeo. Residents can go to vimeo.com/324522958 and type in the password HAPAfilm to watch for free until midnight Friday, Oct. 2.
For those folks who perhaps were not living on Kaua‘i at the time, and for those who have not yet had a chance to watch the film, “Poisoning Paradise” tells the epic story of how the people of Kaua‘i, together with communities across all Hawai‘i, went to battle against the largest chemical companies in the world.
The entire story, of course, is too long, too complex, and too intense to tell in 75 minutes, or in this weekly TGI column.
In short, it started literally as a conversation among four or five people in the living room of a concerned young man, born and raised on Kaua‘i. The conversation started with intense concern as to the impacts of the chemical companies on our health, on nearshore waters and on the environment in general. It inevitably ended on the question, “What can be done?”
Thus was the birth of Bill 2491.
My now-departed good friend and trusted colleague Councilmember Tim Bynum was a co-introducer and equal partner in the effort. Not only was he a kind, passionate and thoughtful soul, he was very often the smartest person in the room.
Bill 2491 was a modest attempt to regulate the agrochemical industry on Kaua‘i. It was fairly straightforward, and asked first and foremost for the companies to disclose their activities and chemicals they were using on our island. Secondly, it asked for buffer zones around schools, hospitals, houses and sensitive areas. The third component was a requirement for a health/environmental impact study. Prior to its amendment, the bill also included a ban on “outdoor growing of experimental test crops” and a moratorium on expanding the size of the fields until completion of an environmental impact statement.
When Bill 2491 was introduced, you would have thought the world was coming to an end. Honestly, I had no idea the chemical companies would react so strongly. They bused their workers in to testify. They told the world that Hooser and Bynum were going to cause them to shut down and move away, and cost Kaua‘i hundreds of jobs. They told everyone the chemicals they used were safe and that they were feeding the world.
All lies, of course. The chemicals are not safe, they are not feeding the world, and the passage of Bill 2491 would not have caused them to shut down.
Most of the GMO corn grown on Kaua‘i is herbicide-resistant “parent seed,” ultimately destined for high-fructose corn syrup, cattle feed and ethanol production. This industry is about developing pesticide/herbicide-resistant food crops so the companies can sell more herbicides and pesticides, not about feeding the world.
And safe? Many of the chemicals used on Kaua‘i by these companies have been banned in many other countries, and literally billions of dollars have already been awarded in health-related lawsuits. No, they are not safe.
At the end of the day Bill 2491 simply asked for disclosure (tell what chemicals you are using in our community) and buffer zones (don’t use them next to schools and sensitive areas), and yet the companies fought us tooth and nail.
The effort to pass Bill 2491 represented a convergence of many other “anti-GMO and anti-pesticide” efforts in Hawai‘i and around the globe. It was this synergy that brought tens of thousand of people together, marching in the streets around the focal point that Bill 2491 became.
We as a community passed Bill 2491, and we overrode Mayor Carvalho’s veto.
Syngenta and friends then sued the County of Kaua‘i for the right to spray poisons next to schools and not tell anybody.
Along the way, Syngenta, one of the largest polluters of ground water in the world, had one employee elected to the Kaua‘i County Council (he’s now in jail awaiting charges on drug trafficking and assaulting a police officer), and another employee appointed by the mayor to the Kaua‘i Board of Water Supply.
But, as history will clearly tell, the chemical companies won the lawsuit and a federal court declared Bill 2491 null and void. While no state or federal law, nor any prior court decisions expressly prohibited the county from regulating pesticides, the court ruled on a principle called “implied preemption,” concluding the state of Hawai‘i “intended” to have exclusive authority.
So, the community went to the state and, after another three-year battle, won full disclosure of restricted-use pesticides and modest buffer zones around schools. Not enough, many would say, but a good start, and the first time in modern history that any new legislation governing these large chemical companies had ever passed in Hawai‘i.
Since the making of this film and as a result of ongoing community efforts by many people on all islands, great strides have been made in the ongoing effort to regulate these companies and protect our community:
• The chemical companies have reduced their footprint in Hawai‘i by over 50%. When Bill 2491 was first introduced, the GMO corn fields stretched from the Lihu‘e Airport, past Kukui Grove and Kaua‘i Community College, all the way to Polihale. Today, you are hard-pressed to find a GMO corn field except at the far reaches of Kekaha and Polihale;
• Two of the major poisons (chlorpyrifos and atrazine) that have been historically used by the ton by these companies are now banned in Hawai‘i;
• Herbicides are no longer permitted for use at public schools;
• Every application of restricted-use pesticides (RUP) must now be disclosed (as cumbersome as the system may be);
• No RUPs may be used within 100 feet of schools (though the distance should be increased even more).
It is interesting to further note that every chemical company involved in this film and at the time of Bill 2491 has since changed its name or contracted out their poison work to other companies.
But, of course, the work goes on. It is still a fact that when the state Department of Health tests stream waters throughout Kaua‘i, they almost always find evidence of pesticide contamination. And the companies (with their new names) still reply, “Well, it’s only a little bit.”
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kaua‘i County Council, and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action and is executive director of the Pono Hawai‘i Initiative.