Kauai Mayor Vetoes GMO Bill, Community Fights Back
Update, November 18: On Saturday, the Kauai County Council reconvened and, by a vote of 5-2, overrode Mayor Carvalho’s veto of Bill 2491.
It’s a victory for the people of Kauai, for their health and for the environment. Biotech companies who have operations on Kauai will now be forced to be more transparent about their use of pesticides and of genetically engineered crops.
On October 16, the Kauai County Council passed Bill 2491, a landmark piece of legislation making it mandatory for agricultural companies to disclose pesticide use and any planting of genetically engineered organisms. The bill also decreed that companies must grow crops at a certain distance from public areas including schools, dwellings, medical facilities, public roadways and waterways and that they must provide annual public reports about GMO crops to the county’s Office of Economic Development and the state’s Department of Agriculture.
The measure had broad support among the community and the Council passed it by a vote of 6-1. But then, on October 31, Kauai Mayor Bernard P. Carvahlo Jr. vetoed the bill.
Carvahlo says that he agrees with the “intent of this bill to provide for pesticide use disclosure, create meaningful buffer zones and conduct a study on the health and environmental issues relating to pesticide use on Kauai.” But, the mayor claims that the measure is “legally flawed” and will require an estimated $1.3 million to implement. “State and federal government pre-empts the county from enacting laws on regulating pesticides and GMOs,” Carvalho said in a letter to the Council, according to the Star-Advertiser.
Hawaii attorneys are objecting to Carvalho’s questioning of Bill 2491′s legality, with nine stating that not only is the measure “sound” on legal grounds, but, as they point out,
“… the mere threat of a lawsuit by industry interests should not prevent the Council from taking action they believe is important to their community…We feel it would be unfortunate if the Council were to allow any well-financed opponent to determine public policy merely by threatening to sue.”
It is indeed “industry interests” — agricultural and biotech companies including Syngenta, DuPont-Pioneer, Dow and BASF — whose lawyers have said that their clients are being unfairly targeted by Bill 2491 and that company property is being subject to “illegal taking.”
Why Pesticide and Buffer Zone Disclosure Must Be Mandatory
Carvalho has expressed support for disclosure and buffer zones, but on the grounds that companies would only have to voluntarily comply with requests for such. The Pesticide Branch of Hawaii’s Agriculture Department has announced guidelines for such a voluntary disclosure of pesticides, the Kauai Agricultural Good Neighbor Program (pdf); these are to take effect on December 1.
But a review of these guidelines makes it all too clear why mandatory disclosure such as Bill 2491 calls for is necessary.
Under the Kauai Agricultural Good Neighbor Program, agricultural and biotech companies are to give a weekly schedule to schools, hospitals and medical clinics within 1,000 feet of where they are spraying and to notify these public sites at least 24 hours in advance about any anticipated changes. They are also to establish 100 foot buffer zones near sites and file a monthly report to the Pesticides Branch regarding the restricted-use pesticides they have applied.
As these guidelines are voluntary, it’s highly debatable how extensively agricultural biotech companies will follow them, if at all. The guidelines leave much to be desired: they do not mention any penalties or fines, nor do they note how the program’s provisions might be enforced. They do not apply to people’s homes or to beekeepers. They do not mention buffer zones for water ways and do not require companies to list specifics about when a pesticide is used. They make no provision for health care providers who might be needed to treat potential acute pesticide exposure. They do not mention signage on roadways, to alert people traveling near fields that have been sprayed.
In fact, the Kauai Agricultural Good Neighbor Program says that its guidelines are “subject to 92F-13.” Under this statute, it is up to companies to determine what to disclose or not, on the basis that something is a “trade secret.”
In other words, the guidelines can be seen as playing too much into the hands of biotech companies. Their limitations show why volunteer disclosure such as Carvalho calls for is insufficient.
Widespread Local Support For Bill 2491
Exchanges between lawyers and government officials aside, there is clear and broad support among longtime local residents to pass Bill 2491. Hundreds of community members (especially those from west Kauai) have been calling on Council members to take action on county legislation for pesticide disclosure, buffer zones and an impact study, to protect their health and safety and that of their families and to preserve their livelihoods. Says Lois Catala, who grew up on the west side,
“The chemical industry has been trying to play up the idea of a ‘vocal minority,’ but most local people, especially residents who live near fields, really want to know what these companies are spraying and when they are doing their spraying.”
Letters from hundreds of residents including lifeguards, medical responders and firefighters underscore the importance of knowing where and when agribusinesses use pesticides and other industrial chemical:
One of the most important tools needed for us to do our job is timely and accurate information. A comprehensive record of the chemicals being used in and around our communities by large-scale industrial agriculture is vitally needed. How can we ensure the health and safety of our communities without this vital information? …Protecting the health and safety of Kauaʻi is our kuleana.
Multigenerational fishermen also emphasize how crucial it is for them to know about pesticide and fertilizer use:
Our shoreline and reefs are our refrigerators, they have been feeding our families since our ancestors first set foot on Kauai. According to the labels on the restricted use pesticides, most are dangerous to fish and wildlife, and they are restricted from being used near waterways.
We need to know whether pesticide runoff is affecting the fish and reef populations that sustain us, and we would like to know immediately…We need to know whether the waters can sustain continued fishing and gathering now and for future generations.
On November 14, the Kauai County Council was to vote on overriding the mayor’s veto. After an emotionally charged session with about 200 people present, the Council recessed without making a decision. Will they do the right thing when they meet again on Saturday at 11 am?
(Thanks to Andrea Brower for providing documents for this post.)
Photo from Thinkstock