Suit seeks review of agribusiness operations in Hawaii

LIHUE (AP) — A lawsuit alleges that an agribusiness company broke Hawaii law by failing to conduct an environmental review before starting operations.

Community group Ke Kauhulu o Mana, Surfrider Foundation, Kohola Leo and the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action filed the suit Tuesday against Syngenta Corp., a Switzerland-based agribusiness that produces agrochemicals and seeds.

According to a Ke Kauhulu o Mana, the groups also list the state Department of Land and Natural Resources as a defendant in the suit because it’s the state’s responsibility to ensure those leasing public lands abide by local regulations.

DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison said that the agency doesn’t comment on pending or outstanding litigation.

Syngenta spokesman Paul Minehart said that Syngenta had received the complaint and is looking into the matter.

Syngenta works about 4,000 acres in Hawaii. The company announced in May that it was selling its Hawaii operations to Wisconsin-based seed company Hartung Brothers Inc., with an anticipated closing date by the end of this month.

Syngenta won’t be completely out of the picture. Part of the agreement includes Syngenta contracting current Hawaii-based seed production activities.

“The environmental and health impacts will remain similar regardless of the named entity conducting day-to-day operations,” according to a Ke Kauhulu o Mana news release.

Hawaii Revised Statutes require an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement for any significant action on publicly owned, coastal and conservation zoned lands.

The legal action rests on the allegation that Syngenta is doing industrial research, not conventional farming, and the law requires the public to be informed if there are any environmental impacts from the operations, according to Kohola Leo.

“The suit is being filed to ensure that sensitive, coastal and publicly owned lands zoned for conservation are given the legally required environmental review prior to being leased out for private commercial use,” said Lance Collins, a public interest attorney representing the plaintiffs.

Gary Hooser, president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action and former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control, said there’s “no question” that the statute applies in the situation because the lands are public crown lands.

“My primary responsibility was administering HRS 343, the law governing environmental impact statements,” Hooser said. “The lands (in question) are public crown lands, zoned conservation and abutting the coast. A full EIS must be conducted.”

DLNR and Syngenta have 20 days from the Tuesday filing — or until July 3 — to respond to the complaint.