Roundup dominates council budget talks

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The County Council is poised to strike the word “Roundup” from its budget, but it remains to be seen if substituting “vegetation management” on paper will make a big change on the ground.

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The County Council is poised to strike the word “Roundup” from its budget, but it remains to be seen if substituting “vegetation management” on paper will make a big change on the ground.

Just one dollar out of every $14,627 in the county budget is spent on roadside spraying for weed control. That, however, didn’t stop opponents from devoting the greater part of Monday to asking it be struck from the $438.8 million budget.

The $30,000 for herbicide spraying accounts for a scant one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the county’s budget. But almost 50 people spent five hours telling the County Council why it should go.

“This is obviously a very, very important issue to the people of Hawaii Island, taking time to discuss a $30,000 line-item in a nearly half-billion-dollar budget,” said Kona resident Shadow Diessner. “This is one small line-item. The bulk of the testimony you’re hearing today is to not spend our tax money on this line item.”

At issue is the use of Roundup brand glyphosate and other herbicides and insecticides by county Department of Public Works employees.

“It’s killing the reefs, it’s going to kill the fish and it will kill us eventually,” said Carole Bazin, speaking from Waimea.

Testifiers suggested using everything from vinegar to saltwater to propane blow torches for clearing unwanted vegetation. They said manual clearing could be increased and the public could be asked to pitch in to clear rights of way in front of their property.

Public Works Director Warren Lee said the county uses Roundup and another herbicide that can be used near waterways in areas the mechanical equipment can’t reach. He said there isn’t enough money in the budget or staff to clear weeds by hand on 1,000 miles of roadway.

Some 60 to 65 percent of roadside maintenance is done with mowers, another 10 percent manually and 25 to 30 percent with herbicides, he said.

The county does have a program where adjacent property owners can keep the right of way clear and post signs telling crews not to spray there. Weeds must be kept down for drivers’ safety, Lee said.

That doesn’t always work though, said one property owner who has a sign. Esta Marshall of Honaunau, whose no-spray sign was featured in the newspaper last week, said sprayers sometimes disregard the sign.

“On the county level, more maintenance employees wielding weed-whackers would satisfy everyone — homeowners, doctors, mothers, anyone concerned about the health crisis that the use by the county and the state of toxic chemicals presents for the public,” Marshall said in an email to North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff. “Yes, this probably requires a bigger budget expenditure, but it is necessary.”

While Eoff urged the council to strike the wording to give Public Works time to transition away from Roundup, Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille said she’s going to introduce budget amendments taking the money out completely.

Other council members urged Wille to allow the county a more gradual transition.

“I think we have to be really cautious,” said Puna Councilman Danny Paleka, “but to start banning stuff, I’m not going to go for that.”

The Wold Health Organization in March said glyphosate was “classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The Kona Soil and Water Conservation District last year sent a letter to Lee, notifying him of concerns about how the county crews were applying Roundup. Chairman Rick Robinson said there were concerns about over-application, drift of the airborne chemical during high-pressure applications and that areas weren’t allowed to dry the full four hours required before people were allowed to walk on the area.

Monica L. Ivey, a spokeswoman for Monsanto Co., which produces Roundup, stood by the safety of the product when used according to label directions.

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“Glyphosate-based herbicides have been safely used for 40 years and when used properly, is an important tool that helps farmers, businesses, government agencies and homeowners control weeds,” Ivey said in an email response to a telephone call Monday. “Glyphosate is one of the most widely used and comprehensively evaluated herbicides, and works by targeting an enzyme that is found in plants, not in humans or animals.”

“Monsanto stands behind the safety of our products, and we encourage Hawaii Island County to use the best combination of pest management tools, based on scientific evidence, to address their weed problems in the most efficient, effective and safe manner,” she added.

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