Herbicide ban advanced: Bill prohibits county use of weed killers in parks, roadsides

  • Geoffrey Last testifies Tuesday in Hilo, supporting a ban on county herbicide spraying, while a makeshift hazmat-clad testifier Cory Hardin watches. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today).

HILO — Hawaii Island is moving toward banning county-applied herbicides on parks and roadsides.

The County Council Agriculture, Water, Energy and Environmental Management Committee on Tuesday voted 7-0 to forward Bill 101 to the first of two required council hearings with a positive recommendation. Kohala Councilman Tim Richards and Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder were absent.

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Bill 101, sponsored by Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, would, over a four-year period, ban the use of herbicides in parks and alongside roads, bike-ways, sidewalks, trails, drainage-ways and waterways owned or maintained by the county. The bill includes a lengthy list of specific chemicals to be banned.

Villegas praised the work of the citizens, former council members and those who prepared the way for her current bill.

“I really feel the time is ripe,” Villegas said. “You can’t deny it anymore, and trying to claim it’s not there, just isn’t really plausible.”

Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy and Councilman Aaron Chung quizzed Autumn Ness, program director of the group Beyond Pesticides, and Sierra Club Hawaii Island Group spokesman Blake Watson, who helped draft the legislation, about specifics in the bill.

Public Works Director David Yamamoto, when asked by Chung, said his department has cut its herbicide use by half.

“But they continue struggling to keep the grass down on the sides of the roads,” Yamamoto said. “Herbicides are the go-to alternative to keep the weeds down.”

Yamamoto said his department will comply with the bill, but it will take a consultant to come in and train his crews, and it may take increased manpower and new equipment.

Both Yamamoto and Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Maurice Messina said the transition will likely require more money in addition to more manpower. Also, Messina said, the department will be looking to sports teams and other volunteers to help maintain the fields, and they probably won’t look as “pristine” as they do now.

“We just want to reiterate we will be requesting additional funding for personnel and equipment,” Messina said.

Beekeepers, moms bouncing babies on their laps, organic farmers, flower growers, environmentalists, doctors and concerned citizens, more than 40 in all, relayed their concerns to the committee about herbicides.

Many asked the ban be implemented sooner. Some 265 individuals sent in written testimony, all but two favoring the bill.

Watson cited a litany of health concerns associated with pesticides, including lymphoma, bladder and colon cancer, Parkinson’s disease, depression and disruption of the endocrine system.

Watson, who helped draft the bill and created the pesticide list, cited his landscape management experience using organic methods as the basis for his understanding of the field and which pesticides should be banned.

“Public sector usage of carcinogenic chemicals on our roadsides, parks and drainages is an environmental justice issue,” Watson said.

The bill calls for a transition period starting Jan. 1, with an outright ban being implemented by Jan. 1, 2024. A seven-member “vegetation management transition committee,” appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, will monitor the county’s progress during the transition period.

Rules would be put in place during the transition period for the county departments of Environmental Management, Parks and Recreation and Public Works requiring posted notices, blocking off of areas treated during a drying period, the use of a blue dye to identify treated areas and adherence to label directions, such as restrictions during wind and rain conditions.

In the meantime, people can volunteer to maintain their own roadsides and put up signs asking it not be sprayed by filling out a form on the Public Works website http://records.co.hawaii.hi.us/weblink/1/doc/66492/Electronic.aspx .

The bill doesn’t apply to private property or to citizens who maintain land adjacent to county easements or lease agricultural land from the county.

Sharon Willeford, testifying from Kona, described her experiences after living downwind from a golf course where pesticides were often applied. She said she was bedridden for three years with open sores and lost her teaching job because she was so ill.

“If you get poisoned, it’s a very hard thing to get well and get back on your feet, and many will not recover,” Willeford said. “We don’t have any more time. We don’t have four years.”

Dr. Misha Kassel, an emergency room physician testifying from Kona, is particularly concerned about herbicides’ effect on children.

“I’m the father of two young girls. I like to take them to the parks but I hesitate to do so,” Kassel said. “The science has been hidden purely in the name of profits. … People like the easy out — spray something and don’t have to get your hands dirty.”

Two testifiers, Springer Kaye and Aaron Stene, urged caution in abandoning without carefully considering necessary herbicides that help keep roadsides free of overgrowth that hinders public safety and help protect native species that would be overrun by invasive weeds. Kaye, project manager for the Hawaii Island Invasive Species Committee, was concerned especially about albizia invasions.

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Frequent testifier Cory Hardin donned a makeshift hazmat suit to make her point.

“If you need a hazmat suit to be spraying it,” Hardin said, “maybe you shouldn’t be spraying it.”

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