HILO — Urged on by new mothers, beekeepers, organic farmers and a soccer coach, the County Council on Wednesday passed a bill banning the county’s use of herbicides on public property, making Hawaii County the first local government in the state to do so.
Bill 101, sponsored by Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, will, over a four-year period, ban the use of Roundup and 29 other herbicides in parks and alongside roads, bike-ways, sidewalks, trails, drainage-ways and waterways owned or maintained by the county.
“The county is taking responsibility, recognizing it as our kuleana to the people of our county and what they want to be exposed to,” Villegas said. “We are in a time of radical need for kuleana, radical need for aloha aina and radical need for kapu aloha.”
Villegas said she’d gotten support from Mayor Harry Kim’s administration before introducing the bill. But Kim said after the vote he’d have to analyze it carefully and run it past staff before committing to signing it.
“There is no disagreement we want to do this,” Kim said. “We must know the consequences of it and be able to mitigate them, we’ve got to plan for it and be willing to pay for it.”
Dozens of testifiers supported the bill, while a fewer number, primarily farmers, nursery owners and flower growers, opposed it.
Hawi resident Maya Parish, holding 5-week-old daughter, Zephyr, asked the council to pass the bill “for the sake of this little one, for the sake of all the children.”
“We are in a time of ecological genocide,” Parish said. “I am appalled at the state of the world we are leaving for future generations.”
The state of Hawaii last year banned the pesticide chlorpyrifos, used to kill insects and worms. The state Department of Education banned herbicides on its campuses about five years ago.
Maui County administration and the state Department of Transportation have been scaling back on herbicide use on Maui, but no legislation has been passed making it mandatory.
Several Maui residents came to testify, including former DOT Highways Superintendent Stephen Rodgers, who said switching to organic herbicides and long-armed mowers enabled his crews to eliminate glyphosate, the active ingredient in the non-selective herbicide Roundup, from the mix, without increasing labor costs.
“They weren’t perfect, but they did work,” Rodgers said.
The 6-3 vote didn’t come without controversy. Kohala Councilman Tim Richards, Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung and Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy voted against the measure.
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.
But Richards, a veterinarian, rancher and staunch proponent of agriculture, expressed concerns that the bill could be used as a “stepping stone” to a countywide ban. He noted that three of the banned chemicals target weeds in soybeans and corn, which the county doesn’t grow.
Richards called the bill “too over-arching, too far-reaching.”
“The last thing we need to do is put anything in the way of agriculture to prevent it growing forward,” Richards said. “I completely support the intent, but I do not support the way this bill is written.”
Supporters cited scientific studies showing herbicides are linked to cancer, decreased cognitive function and behavioral problems in children and damage to marine environments.
“Cigarettes used to be safe. Climate change used to be fake,” said Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder. “A lot of things we thought were safe, we’ve found would kill us.”
Opponents worried about the cost and increased county liability when mechanical measures such as weed trimming and mowing replace chemicals to keep weeds down.
Parks and Recreation Director Roxcie Waltjen estimated she’d need 400 additional park maintenance workers at about $39,000 salaries. Public Works Director David Yamamoto said he’d also need more staff and equipment, but he didn’t have an estimate.
Both departments said they’ve already cut their herbicide use by half. In addition, four parks have been selected for pilot projects that involve the cessation of herbicide use: Hilo soccer field No. 4, Old A Park football field, Waikoloa Park and Pahoa District Park.
Lee Loy said her research showed there would be more downtime for county employees as well. Since 2014, no workers have claimed comp time for exposure to herbicides or other pesticides, but there were 33 claims of injuries associated with mowers and trimmers, costing $382,000.
Chung and Lee Loy had asked for an exemption for Hilo Municipal Golf Course, and said they were disappointed the bill wasn’t amended to reflect that. Chung had also asked earlier for an explanation of the 30 chemicals on the banned list, but wasn’t satisfied he knew what they all did.
“Why we don’t stick to (banning) glyphosate? I ‘don’t know what these other chemicals are and I can’t responsibly vote to ban them,” Chung 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.
The Hawaii Organic Land Management Program of the Washington, D.C. group Beyond Pesticides has offered to train county employees and serve as a consultant at no cost to the county.
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 they 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.