Legislation slated to regulate use of GMOs, pesticides

WAILUKU – Maui County could be joining Hawaii and Kauai counties in creating an ordinance to regulate pesticides and genetically modified organisms by commercial agricultural companies.

Council Member Elle Cochran introduced a bill Friday at the full council meeting that would mandate that commercial agricultural entities disclose pesticides and GMOs; establish pesticide buffer zones; have the county complete an environmental and public health impact study about pesticides and GMOs; and establish penalties for violators.

There was no action scheduled Friday. The bill was referred to the Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee.

But it wasn’t without the urging of Cochran to hold it in her Infrastructure and Environmental Management Committee, where she believed she could get it more expeditiously addressed than in the already busy policy committee.

Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa, who made the initial referral, and some other council members determined it was better heard in the policy committee because it was a policy matter, although they acknowledged the bill also deals with the environment and agriculture.

The policy committee chaired by Council Member Riki Hokama has all nine council members as voting members, which Baisa said is a plus because all members could participate and help expedite the process. Cochran’s committee has seven voting members.

This week, Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi signed into law a bill banning any new GMO in open-air settings on the Big Island and limiting their growth and testing to enclosed structures.

In November, the Kauai County Council overrode Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr.’s veto of a bill that requires seed and other agricultural companies to disclose use of pesticides and GMOs.

In November, Mayor Alan Arakawa signed a memorandum of understanding with Monsanto. In it, he obtained assurances from the company that it would engage in safe practices involving restricted-use pesticides.

The agreement came after the legislative action in Kauai and Hawaii counties.

Maui County decided to approach Monsanto, which has farms on Maui and Molokai, to require disclosure of the company’s restricted-use pesticides and all information about related practices.

The county is also working with Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. on a similar agreement.

Dozens of people testified on the bill Friday, urging the full council to refer the matter to the Infrastructure Management and Environmental Affairs Committee. At least one testifier said there are rumors that the bill would be left to die in the policy committee. People warned that there are apparent health issues to the environment and even to people related to the use of pesticides and farming of GMOs.

But some from the agricultural community including representatives from small farms said the use of restricted pesticides is already heavily regulated by the federal government and workers need to be certified to use them.

They said the bill would add another layer of bureaucracy to farmers who already need to comply to similar and other laws as well as cope with other issues involving potential higher water rates and droughts.

Reached during a break in the meeting, Carol Reimann, community and government affairs manager for Monsanto, referred to her written testimony. In it, she says the company opposes the proposed bill and asked the council to give the memorandum of understanding a chance rather than “adding another layer of regulation” that she said would cost the county valuable resources.

“Monsanto is committed to being a good neighbor and responsible business,” she said in her letter. “We have very strict policies and practices in place to ensure we meet all state and federal laws, operate in a responsible and safe manner.”

The bill calls for:

* Having commercial agricultural companies send regular mass notification messages at least once during every seven-day week summarizing the anticipated application of any pesticide for the upcoming week.

* Each commercial agricultural entity to establish an emergency response hotline to be made available to any licensed physician or nurse practitioner in which the doctor or nurse affiliated with a clinic, medical facility or emergency center, would be able to call for information about pesticide applications if there were a documented medical need to do so.

* Allowing no crops to be grown within 500 feet of any adult family boarding home, adult family group living home, day care center, family care home, family child care home, medical facility, nursing home, residential care home or school.

* Any person, whether as principal agent, employee or otherwise, violating, causing, or permitting the violation of any of the provisions in the law, to be assessed a civil fine of not less than $10,000 and not more than $25,000 per day, per violation.

* Anyone charged with a violation would be guilty of a misdemeanor and may be punished with a fine of no more than $2,000, or imprisoned no more than one year, or both for each offense.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.