Maui County works to cut its pesticide use

Departments reduce use in public spaces; councilor plans to propose a wider ban

Dewayne “Lee” Johnson recalls how he was exposed to Ranger Pro herbicide while spraying a California hillside as part of his job as a public school groundskeeper. Johnson was part of a panel that spoke about the future of pesticides in Maui County on Monday in Wailuku. -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

WAILUKU — Dewayne “Lee” Johnson was spraying Ranger Pro on a California hillside when the hose detached from the 50-gallon sprayer and doused him in herbicide.

“I got it all in my suit, I got it all over my face, I got it everywhere,” he said. “I even had to make a small dam to stop this stuff from running into a drain.”

Johnson didn’t feel the effects right away. Then he started to experience symptoms and develop marks that hadn’t been there before. He went to a clinic and then to a dermatologist, who sent a biopsy to Stanford University. In August 2014, Johnson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The school groundskeeper sued Monsanto — the maker of Roundup and its generic version, Ranger Pro — and won in a historic trial last summer, which he hopes will be the start of changes in municipalities across the country.

“It’s really hard to figure out what to do next because they’ve been using this (product) for so long,” Johnson said in Wailuku on Monday. “But I think people are starting to see that there is something going on with this product. I’m living proof of that.

Maui County Parks and Recreation worker Myles Ka‘eo trims overgrown grass along the shoreline at Wahikuli Wayside Park on Saturday morning. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“Like I said before, I’m the weed that didn’t die.”

Johnson was part of a panel that considered the future of pesticide use in Maui County, which already has started to look at ways to reduce its use within public spaces.

In select county parks, staff are maintaining fields without pesticides. Along county roads, Public Works employees are trying out natural sprays and relying more on manual labor. And, on the Maui County Council, one member is preparing a bill that would ban pesticide use on county-owned lands.

“This is not about blaming anybody for anything or talking about what we’re doing wrong,” said panelist Autumn Ness, Hawaii Organic Land Management Program director for Beyond Pesticides. “It’s really about addressing the reality that the way we’ve been doing certain things in certain ways for a while as it pertains to land and pest management, no matter how you slice it, we can do better.”

Ballfields and road brush

AUTUMN NESS, Seeking safer alternatives

In 2017, the county Parks and Recreation Department launched a pesticide-free pilot program at four county parks — War Memorial Little League Field in Wailuku, the Luana Gardens playing fields in Kahului, Makana Park in Kuau and the South Maui Community Park in Kihei.

All the parks contained Bermuda grass, among other types. And, except for Makana Park, all were frequently used by baseball and soccer programs, activities that can compact the soil and leave little room for air and the good microbes that create healthy grasses.

Ness, who was an executive assistant for Council Member Elle Cochran at the time, said that Beyond Pesticides provided $5,000 for training, soil testing and a “turf report” with recommendations for each of the parks. They broke it down to a few basic things — compost, molasses, humic acid and aeration.

Parks Director Karla Peters said Thursday that staff have been applying the recommended materials to create “a naturally strong soil system.” But as with any experiment, there are pros and cons.

“We have seen a significant amount of new weeds within the landscape and will need to conduct additional soil testing to see the impact on the soil system,” Peters said. “There has not been a significant impact on funding. The material cost has decreased and the labor hours have increased due to the time taken to remove the weed population.”

DWAYNE SPARKMAN, Has cut chemical usage

Peters said that the department is looking to expand the program but has not yet identified specific locations. She added that the department “is always looking for ways to improve our parks and cultural turf practices.”

“In working with Beyond Pesticides on the increase in the weed population at our pesticide-free parks, it was identified that a change in the type of grass would be the recommended organic solution,” Peters said. “Implementing a pesticide-free policy will require additional funding for labor and material to complete this type of conversion.

“To assist the department in the transition, we would be requesting technical assistance from Beyond Pesticides in identifying organic landscape management products that we can utilize.”

Ness said Beyond Pesticides will work to make sure the department has the resources and products it needs, as well as educate the public on why things are changing “in case there are complaints about something.” The Washington, D.C., based nonprofit also plans to do the same thing with any county in Hawaii that wants to commit to going organic.

Ness said she’s applied for grants to keep the program going over the last few years, and that the latest grants cover the work through this year. The funds go toward efforts on Maui as well as Kauai, Hawaii island and Oahu, and Beyond Pesticides also wants to work with the state Board of Education to get pesticides and herbicides out of schools.

Meanwhile, the county Public Works Department also has been looking for ways to reduce its usage of glyphosate products over the last three to four years, a result of community concerns, Director Rowena Dagdag-Andaya told The Maui News on Monday. The department has tried organic and natural solutions like vinegar and salt, though it hasn’t quite found a product that adequately replaces Roundup. Going pesticide-free along roads requires a different approach than in parks.

“The vegetation on the right-of-way is very different from a park,” Dagdag-Andaya explained. “We have a lot of woody-type of vegetation and vegetation that just grows wild. What seems to help is using the mechanical efforts — weed whacking, brush cutting.”

The county has about 550 miles of roads under its jurisdiction, which means more than 1,000 miles of lane shoulders to maintain. Replacing pesticides is most difficult in areas that are steep, tough to reach with equipment or have line-of-sight issues, Dagdag-Andaya said. There are areas like that Upcountry, including Baldwin Avenue, as well as Haiku and Kahakuloa.

“One of the big concerns we get aside from potholes is, ‘can you cut the brush?’ or ‘can you do more weed eating?’ ” Dagdag-Andaya said. “And I think that it’s been happening more lately because we’ve reduced the amount of herbicides that we’re applying along our roadways. The staff understands that concern and have been trying to schedule work so that we can address those areas in a more timely manner. We’ve been even going out on the weekends.”

The department has a mechanical brush cutter in each district that can also assist in vegetation clearing. Staff have also found weed mats to be very effective along guardrails and have been applying them in priority areas, like the ones Dagdag-Andaya mentioned. The mats are expensive and “a little labor intensive to apply and put down, but if we’re able to get a good 5-10 years from them, then I think it’s worth it,” she said.

While Public Works can reduce its use of pesticides, completely eliminating them is a bigger challenge that the department will need to discuss with the council and the community, Dagdag-Andaya said. Regardless of the hurdles, she said she thought it was a good thing and “something that we have to do.”

On the legislative side, Council Member Shane Sinenci, who holds the East Maui residency seat, is working on a bill that would eliminate the use of pesticides in public facilities countywide.

“The bill will cover county-owned lands and at this time not private property, though the council could amend it to be more expansive during the committee hearings,” said Gina Flammer, an executive assistant to Sinenci.

Flammer said that the council member plans to meet with parks and public works staff over the summer to finalize the bill. It will then likely be referred to the Environmental, Agricultural and Cultural Preservation Committee, which Sinenci chairs, in the fall.

One lawn at a time

When Duane Sparkman came to The Westin Maui Resort & Spa about six years ago, the resort’s maintenance program was based around golf course practices. But the problem, Sparkman said, is that golfers wear much more clothing that protects from exposure to pesticides used on the greens. Beachgoers wear decidedly less.

So Sparkman said he pulled everything out of the resort’s chemical storage area — “which was quite frightening” — and got rid of whatever they didn’t need. The resort went from about 20 chemicals down to three organic products, including Azatin and Azamax, which contain natural neem oils that bugs hate. Sparkman said a lot of chemicals that are used simply aren’t necessary, especially when there’s manual labor or alternative products available.

He said that Maui has “very good available compost” that he often uses at The Westin to help foster the microbes in the soil.

“My grass actually naturally aerates itself, so it’s alive, and that’s the whole point, is to keep things alive,” said Sparkman, who is now The Westin’s assistant chief engineer and sat on the panel with Johnson. “When you keep things alive and thriving, they actually choke out competitive species and you stop having to put down chemistry.”

Smart natural landscaping is also about making sure the resort is growing the types of plants that will thrive in West Maui, Sparkman said. That same concept applies to homeowners wanting to go organic in their yards. He encouraged people to find plants that are meant to survive in their areas, and to get creative. If there’s a spot that won’t grow, build a shed or a patio, for example.

“Drive around your neighborhood — and it’s gotta be your neighborhood. Don’t go driving around Wailea if you live in Makawao,” Sparkman said. “Find the yard that looks the nicest and they got the coolest plants, and you go talk to that person. It’s like borrowing a cup of sugar.”

Sparkman, a landscape consultant with Edaphic Perspective, also suggested that people talk to local gardening and landscaping vendors.

“They’re the guys that provide this material to these islands,” Sparkman said. “They’re the guys that will stop providing the material you don’t want here if you stop buying it. How do you initiate a ban? You stop buying it.”

Ness pointed out that new organic products are going on the market all the time as companies realize that they need to make alternatives.

“Just like anything else in the beginning, just like your first iPhone, there’s glitches and it doesn’t work as good as Roundup,” Ness said. “To be honest, nothing is going to kill everything as cheap as Roundup. So we really need to get away from what’s the Roundup substitute to how are we going to do things differently.”

Johnson just wants people to be informed. He said he kept spraying Ranger Pro, even after his diagnosis, because he “didn’t really know the facts on this stuff.” He got even sicker and was exposed a second time by a backpack sprayer before he finally had to stop. It wasn’t until he stumbled upon an internet ad for the legal team at The Miller Firm that he realized his exposure to glyphosate and resulting cancer diagnosis might have implications beyond his own case.

Dewayne Johnson v. Monsanto Co. was heralded as the first Roundup-related cancer lawsuit to make it to trial, where a jury awarded Johnson $289 million in damages (a judge later reduced it to $78 million). Now the 46-year-old California man is traveling around Hawaii speaking to county and state workers about moving away from pesticides.

Johnson said that while using products like Roundup or Ranger Pro may be faster and easier, “it’s not the best way.” It’s about getting down to the basics of the soil.

“As an applicator and a maintenance guy, when you get rid of that root ball, you don’t go there for months,” Johnson said. “It’s gone. . . . When I kill the root, I get it out of the ground, not just spray it with something, then I have different results, and I’m treating the soil better.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.