As the state moves to adopt a new, federally mandated permit system for using pesticides in and around waterways, some conservationists are questioning whether special-interest groups unduly influenced the rulemaking process.
In the months leading up to the release of the draft rules, staff from various state agencies engaged in informal meetings with a working group comprising representatives of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, the Navy, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and other pesticide users. However, “no substantive documentation of these working group meetings was compiled or made available to the public,” Earthjustice attorney Caroline Ishida wrote in testimony submitted on behalf of her organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, Life of the Land, Surfrider Foundation and KAHEA.
Grady Timmons, spokesman for TNC, defended the meetings, saying they were prompted by concerns that the state Department of Health wouldn’t have its rules in place before the federal deadline. “We took it upon ourselves to approach the [state’s] Clean Water Branch and ask if were they willing to accept informal comments,” he said.
Gary Gill, the state’s deputy director for environmental health, acknowledged that “a group of concerned stakeholders coalesced themselves and held meetings to discuss their concerns and specific language.” But he said the public process is being adhered to.”
The rules themselves are meeting resistance. Earthjustice and others believe they aren’t strict enough, and should require operators to use least-toxic alternatives, conduct water quality monitoring, and provide broader public disclosure. Appliers object to what they consider a double layer of regulation, as well as a broader effort to eliminate chemicals in farming altogether. “Nobody likes to use chemicals, but we have a ditch system that needs to be cleaned,” said Kauai farmer Jerry Ornellas, who also serves on the state Board of Agriculture. “We can’t clear it by hand unless we empty the cities of people and have them come work on our farms.”
Gill said he recognizes “that people are calling for greater public access to where and how pesticides are being applied, and I think that’s a valid point.” But he said that discussion goes beyond the scope of the new permit process, which was mandated after a federal court found the Environmental Protection Agency improperly excluded pesticides from Clean Water Act regulations.
“There is nothing in our draft rules that would make it any easier for [pesticide] applications in waterways,” Gill said. Recent concerns raised over improplerly applied pesticides (methomyl on basil), said Gill, “raise the issue that there appears to be a need for greater government oversight, public information and farming training to ensure pesticides are applied appropriately and carefully.” Gill said it may be months before the rules are finalized. Meanwhile, the court ruling catches pesticide users in a legal limbo by requiring a permit that is not yet available.