×

Monsanto agrees to plead guilty, pay $10M in fines

Company admits to illegally using chemical in fields, transporting and storing in 2014

Monsanto Co. has agreed to plead guilty to using, transporting and storing a banned pesticide at its South Maui, Maalaea and Kaunakakai facilities in 2014 and to pay $10 million in fines and community service payments, U.S. attorneys said Thursday.

“The illegal conduct in this case posed a threat to the environment, surrounding communities and Monsanto workers,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna for the Central District of California. “Federal laws and regulations impose a clear duty on every user of regulated and dangerous chemicals to ensure the products are safely stored, transported and used.”

U.S. attorneys in Los Angeles handled the case after their counterparts in Honolulu were recused, a news release from the California U.S. attorney’s office said.

In court filings in U.S. District Court in Honolulu on Thursday, Monsanto has agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor offense of unlawfully spraying a banned pesticide — specifically methyl parathion, the active ingredient in Penncap-M — on 2 acres of corn seed and research crops at its Valley Farm facility in Kihei on July 15, 2014.

Monsanto also had its workers go back into the fields seven days after application — instead of the required 31 days, the filings said.

The company has agreed to be on probation for two years and to pay the maximum possible fine of $200,000 for this offense.

The agreement must still be approved by the U.S. District Court in Honolulu. No further court dates have been set, but Thom Mrozek, director of media relations for the U.S. attorney’s office in California, said he “would expect the first court appearance to be next month.”

Methyl parathion is “highly toxic by inhalation and ingestion” and has caused human fatalities, a Cornell University website said. The chemical can cause contact burns to the skin or eyes. Chronic effects reported include impaired memory and concentration, speech difficulties and severe depression.

The pesticide is used to control boll weevils and many biting or sucking insect pests. It kills insects by contact, stomach and respiratory action, the website said.

Monsanto, which is currently owned by pharmaceutical company Bayer of Germany, said Thursday that it is “not aware of any reported human health or environmental impacts” as a result of the violations.

The company admitted in court documents that it used Penncap-M, even though the company knew its use was prohibited after 2013 due to a “cancellation order” issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. One of the producers of methyl parathion products is United Phosphorus of King of Prussia, Pa., according to EPA documents.

The court filings also include a deferred prosecution agreement related to two felony counts of unlawfully storing acute hazardous waste. For these charges, Monsanto has agreed to pay $10 million — a $6 million criminal fine and $4 million in community service payments to state government entities.

Federal attorneys agreed to dismiss the felony charges in two years if Monsanto abides by the agreement, which includes paying a total of $10.2 million, successfully completing a two-year period of compliance with the agreement’s terms and maintaining a comprehensive environmental compliance program with all federal environmental laws at its facilities on Maui, Molokai and Oahu.

In a statement of facts filed in court Thursday, Monsanto admitted that it knowingly used, transported and stored Penncap-M in violation of federal law. The pesticide “had to be managed as an acute hazardous waste in compliance with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act,” which prohibited the storage or transportation of the pesticide without a permit after 2013.

From March 2013 through August 2014, Monsanto stored 160 pounds of Penncap-M at its Molokai facility, which under the act made Monsanto a “Large Quantity Generator” of hazardous waste.

In addition to spraying the banned pesticide at its Kihei facility, Monsanto also stored a total of 111 gallons of Penncap-M at Valley Farm and two other sites in Maalaea and South Maui. Just like on Molokai, the storage of Penncap-M at the three Maui sites made Monsanto a “Large Quantity Generator” of acute hazardous waste, according to court documents.

When the company transported Penncap-M to its Valley Farm site on public highways in July and September 2014 in an effort to consolidate storage, the company violated federal law when it failed to use a proper shipping manifest to identify the hazardous material and to obtain a permit to accept hazardous waste at the Valley Farm site, the U.S. attorney said.

“To protect human health and the environment, pesticides must be properly applied and stored,” said Special Agent-in-Charge Jay M. Green of EPA’s criminal enforcement program in Hawaii. “EPA will continue to work in close partnership with our state and local counterparts to bring cases against those who knowingly threaten the health and safety of Hawaiian communities.”

In addition to $6.2 million in criminal fines, Monsanto has agreed to make a total of $4 million in community service payments to five state agencies that each will receive $800,000 — the state Department of Agriculture to create and fund a pesticide disposal program and for training and education purposes; the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Maui Division of Aquatic Resources, for its marine programs; the state Department of Health Hazardous Waste Branch for training and education programs; the state Department of Health Environmental Management Division for water quality monitoring, water quality improvements and training and education purposes; and the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission for the clean-up of Kahoolawe.

Mrozek noted Thursday that the plea agreement for spraying Penncap-M applies only to the single use on July 15, 2014. He could not address whether the chemical had been used in other instances after the Dec. 31, 2013, ban.

Monsanto had used the pesticide for years, the court filings said. In July 2013, the company stopped using Penncap-M on its Molokai fields. It disposed of 180 pounds of the pesticide with a licensed hazardous disposal company in September 2014 but had stored the pesticide from Dec. 31, 2013, in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The company disposed of its supplies of Penncap-M in Kihei in October 2014, also in violation of the act after Dec. 31, 2013.

This case is the result of an investigation by the EPA, Criminal Investigation Division. Mrozek had not heard back from EPA officials Thursday night and did not know how the investigation began.

Monsanto said Thursday that the company reported the 2014 Penncap-M application to the state Department of Agriculture.

“Monsanto Co. did not live up to its own standards or the applicable laws,” the company statement said.

“The health and safety of our community, employees and environment have always been our number one priority,” said Darren Wallis, Bayer vice president of communications for North America. “As stewards of the land, it is our responsibility to use agriculture products safely and to manage our waste correctly. We take this very seriously and accept full responsibility for our actions.”

He said the company has taken steps to improve internal processes and implemented additional training.

“We did not live up to our own standards or the law,” Wallis said. “We have acknowledged this as part of our agreements with the Department of Justice, which are pending in federal district court. We accept responsibility and are deeply sorry.”

Monsanto has been a lightning rod for those opposed to genetically modified organisms. Last month, two Maui families, who lived near Monsanto fields in Kihei, filed a lawsuit in 2nd Circuit Court against the company and landowner Alexander & Baldwin, alleging that pesticides and chemicals used in the fields led to birth defects in their children.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.­