(Beyond Pesticides, December 19, 2016) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week filed a complaint against a Syngenta research farm in Kauai, Hawaii for exposing a dozen agricultural workers to an unregistered insecticide on the farm in early 2016. Syngenta Seeds, LLC is facing over $4.8 million in fines from EPA for allegedly violating multiple federal pesticide regulations meant to protect agricultural workers. At the time of the incident, 19 agricultural workers went to work on fields freshly sprayed with the insecticide chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate insecticide. The incident with this highly neurotoxic chemical sent 10 workers to the hospital for medical treatment.
EPA’s complaint states that Syngenta Hawaii LLC misused the pesticide “Lorsban Advanced” and that violated EPA’s worker protection standard. Due to its neurotoxicity, EPA banned chlorpyrifos for residential uses in 2000, but retained most agricultural use. EPA maintains that Syngenta failed to provide a waiting period for the workers to re-enter the fields. Additionally, Syngenta did not provide workers with personal protective equipment, as well as proper decontamination supplies once the exposure had occurred.
At the time of the incident, an inspector from the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA) was present on the Syngenta farm, which triggered an immediate investigation from the state. In March, HDOA notified EPA of the matter, which led to a follow-up investigation from the agency later in April that resulted in the civil fines. Residents living on the Hawaiian Islands are subject to ongoing pesticide exposure from experimental farms because of the state’s pristine growing conditions that make it a prime area for agrichemical companies to test new, experimental chemicals and crops, including new genetically engineered (GE) crops. Data released last year reveals that high levels of restricted use pesticides, in some cases almost double the pounds per acre average of other states, are being used in Kauai County. According to the Center for Food Safety, in 2014 alone there were 1,381 field test sites in Hawaii, compared to only 178 sites in California –a large agricultural state. Most of these crops are engineered to tolerate applications of herbicides and other pesticides. Testing these crops means repeated spraying of hazardous chemicals near neighborhoods, schools, and waterways. Residents of the Hawaiian Islands that live, work, or go to school near these fields are subject to incessant pesticide spraying, as the climate provides a year-round growing season for GE crops. A May 2014 report found 25 herbicides, 11 insecticides, and 6 fungicides in Hawaii’s waterways, underscoring resident concerns for both the land and human health.
Worrisome pesticide poisoning incidents are common in Hawaii. In August 2016, Earthjustice sent EPA a letter to EPA requesting that the agency notify HDOA of its chronic failure to carry out its regulatory and enforcement responsibility under federal law, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Earthjustice urged EPA to rescind HDOA’s primary enforcement authority (the authority delegated to the state under FIFRA) unless corrective action was taken. Problems identified by Earthjustice include a failure to enforce pesticide use violations and a large backlog of pesticide complaints and investigations dating back to as early as 2008. Had the HDOA inspector not been onsite at the time of the exposure, this incident could have been another incident left to be determined and added to the backlogged incident reports.
EPA has been warning HDOA repeatedly since 2012 that it has failed to adequately enforce pesticide laws and has allowed an unacceptable backlog of inspection files to grow. Instead of increasing its staff, HDOA’s enforcement staff has been steadily shrinking, and the number of inspections and enforcements have been decreasing every year. EPA’s most recent annual review of HDOA’s performance noted there were approximately 700 inspection files in need of review, some dating back to 2008. As a result, there have not only been enforcement delays, but some cases can no longer be acted on because the statute of limitations expired while files sat on HDOA’s desk.
Beyond Pesticides continues to be an ardent supporter of common sense protections from pesticides and their associated use in agriculture and on GE crops. If you too support these issues, please visit our website, give us a call at 202-543-5450, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about the issues and find ways to get involved in your local community.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.