(Beyond Pesticides, October 17, 2013) Early yesterday morning, the Kauai County (Hawaii) Council ended a grueling 19-hour session by approving new protections from pesticides and genetically engineered (GE) crops in a 6 to 1 vote on Bill 2491. After enduring years of pesticide abuse from agrichemical giants Syngenta, Dow, DuPont Pioneer, and BASF, the residents of Kauai will finally receive simple protections they and future generations on the “Garden Isle” deserve. The legislation is a major victory for the local community, which engaged in numerous non-violent rallies and demonstrations urging the council to “Pass the Bill!”
Local leaders crafted Bill 2491 in response to public outcry from residents, many of whom live, work, or have children that go to school near agricultural fields leased by chemical corporations. “The people in my community have asked for help,” said Kauai County Councilmember Gary Hooser. “People are concerned.” Many in the community assert that the passage of Bill 2491 is only the beginning of local efforts to reign in excesses and abuses of agrichemical companies operating on the island.
While some of the more stringent measures in the bill were removed at a previous Committee meeting earlier this month, other aspects of the legislation were strengthened. Though a moratorium on the future planting of GE crops was nixed and regulations governing experimental pesticides were removed, pesticide disclosure was strengthened, requiring industry to submit weekly reports to nearby residents beginning nine months after the passage of the legislation. Bill 2491 also requires pesticide companies to provide the county and public with an annual accounting of pesticide use, disclose the location of GE crops, and conduct an Environmental and Public Health Impact Study on the effects of the agrichemical industry. The bill restricts the application of all pesticides within 500 feet of schools and other medical facilities, and within 100 feet of any park, public roadway or shoreline that flows into the ocean. Violation of the law will carry significant penalties, with civil fines up to $25,000 a day per violation, and up to one year in jail.
Yesterday’s 19 hour Council session was the norm, rather than the exception, in the heated political wrangling surrounding Bill 2491. Agrichemical companies put significant pressure on the County Council, even explicitly threatening to sue the local government. After the passage of the bill, DuPont spokesman Josh St. Peters told Reuters, “We believe that the bill is not legally defensible and we continue to evaluate all of our business and legal options.” A group of attorneys on the island have disputed this assertion, writing in a statement, “We believe that Bill 2491 is sound, and the mere threat of a lawsuit by industry interests should not prevent the Council from taking action they believe is important to their community.” The Council voted not to disclose a legal opinion from the County Attorney for fear of damaging the county’s defense for the impending lawsuit.
Apart from legal threats, it is evident from the Council meetings that agrichemical companies were not interested in finding a compromise with local leaders. See here for Councilman Hooser’s attempts to find middle ground.
Pushback from Kauai’s mayor and intervention from the governor and state agriculture department also acted as roadblocks to final passage of the bill. These opponents stressed the importance of working at the state level to solve the community’s concerns, but were widely seen by local activists as attempting to derail the legislation, or capitulate to the agrichemical companies. Governor Neil Abercrombie proposed voluntary pesticide disclosure and buffer zone guidelines, to which Councilmember Hooser responded, “Truthfully I have no confidence in the legislature or the state administration doing anything of significance that will have any near term tangible impacts on the activities and practices of these large agrochemical companies in our community.” Due to a history of lax enforcement, local legislators are distrustful of the state and its responsiveness to their community’s concerns. A review of state records and interviews with local regulators conducted by the local Hawaiian news site Civil Beat earlier this year revealed that the state of Hawaii is not adequately tracking the level of pesticides in Kauai’s rivers, lakes, and streams as mandated under Environmental Protection Agency regulations and the Clean Water Act.
Kauai Mayor Carvalho pushed for and received a delay in the final vote last week, and objected to the bill’s passage last night due to his concerns about funding, county implementation, and future lawsuits. When a Councilmember who will soon be joining the Mayor’s staff moved to delay, shouts of “Pass the Bill” from onlookers and strong words from other Councilmembers ultimately ended the debate. “Until you resign, your responsibility is to the people of Kauai,” said Councilmember Bynum, “and for you to say that next week that you have to work for the mayor and will have to implement this is highly impartial and unethical.”
Kauai County is part of a growing number of communities that are instituting safeguards to protect their residents from the harmful effects of pesticide exposure. Kauai now joins the City of Takoma Park, MD in enacting legislation that restricts the use of pesticides on private land. A number of state-level laws preempt individual localities from enacting any law stricter than the states. Communities subject to these state laws can pass ordinances to govern pesticide use on local government-owned lands, but are prevented from applying these important precautions to private property. As Kauai and Takoma Park show, these laws are unduly burdensome for the unique needs found in each community.
“To the seed companies, I want to make sure you understand that we have to envision the future for our island,” said Council Chair Jay Furfaro shortly before the vote on Bill 2491. “Your companies have your policies. But we need to envision Kauai in the future and this is a start for us.”
Beyond Pesticides believes that every community in the United States should have a right to self-determination when it comes to the chemicals that are applied in and around where they live, work and play. Read Beyond Pesticides testimony on Bill 2491 for additional information. If you’d like to become involved in a campaign in your community, send an email to [email protected], or call 202-543-5450.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.