Council panel nixes herbicide resolution

  • Abel Lui testifies to a County Council committee Tuesday in Hilo about owls he said were killed by herbicide spraying in Ka’u. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)

A nonbinding resolution urging Mayor Harry Kim and his administration to reduce herbicide use was withdrawn by its sponsors Tuesday when it became clear the measure was about to be voted down.

Resolution 475, sponsored by Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz and Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, follows last month’s failed attempt by the council to override Kim’s veto of Bill 101, more substantive legislation that would have phased out the county government’s use of Roundup and 22 other herbicides within four years. Kierkiewicz and Lee Loy had voted against overriding the veto.

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Kierkiewicz said she sponsored the resolution because it “keeps the ball rolling.” She said she and her family have fielded personal attacks and threats to their safety by those who disagree with her stance.

“This topic has been unnecessarily polarizing and divisive,” Kierkiewicz said. “I just wanted to create a space where we can create an environment of listening.”

Lee Loy said she’s also been the recipient of “some ugly.”

“I saw this as an opportunity to kind of comb out what we all agreed about on a piece of legislation … and lift up really good information which would then drive sound policy,” Lee Loy said.

Resolution 465 would have created as a policy goal the reduction of herbicide use on county property to the minimum amount necessary as a tool of last resort. It supported the creation of a vegetation management advisory commission. And, it requested the administration give the County Council bimonthly updates.

Maurice Messina, one of Kim’s executive assistants, told the committee the administration has a goal to have members appointed to the advisory commission within four months.

In the meantime, since the veto, the two departments that most handle herbicides — the Departments of Public Works and Parks and Recreation — have had refresher training from the state Department of Agriculture on how to handle pesticides. Workers are prohibited from spraying from vehicles but must walk with the vehicle while spraying, he said.

In addition, Messina said, the county is developing a database of spraying schedules and conditions and is creating a map app that he hopes can be shared with the public through a website after it’s finalized. The county maintains 39 beach parks, 65 parks and playgrounds, 36 gyms and rec centers, numerous cemeteries and a golf course in addition to hundreds of miles of roadways.

“We are committed to reducing herbicide use in our county,” Messina said. “The mayor is committed and he’s following through on his commitment.”

The administration has, however, cut from four to two parks for pilot projects that involve the cessation of herbicide use: Kuawa Street ballfields in Hilo and Pahoa District Park ballfields. Two West Hawaii Parks, Old Kona Airport Park football field and Waikoloa Park, have been eliminated because of a lack of training time with Beyond Pesticides, Messina said.

Supporters of Bill 101, which had been sponsored by Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, asked the Committee on Agriculture, Water, Energy and Environmental Management to reject the resolution because a new bill is in the works that would accomplish many of the same goals as Bill 101.

“Passing this resolution would stand in the way of passing this more meaningful legislation,” said Cory Harden, reading from testimony by Blake Watson on behalf of the Sierra Club Hawaii Group. “To be clear: a resolution is nothing more than a suggestion to the administration to create policy, and in fact, we have been going in circles for decades trying to get whoever the current administration is to stop spraying dangerous herbicides in our public spaces, and here we are again right at square one.”

Other testifiers were more blunt. Bridgit Lee Loy Bales, of Panaewa, called the resolution “the epitome of green-washing.”

“We have the same politicians who helped kill Bill 101 returning and expecting this sham resolution to appease the public who overwhelmingly testified in support of Bill 101,” Bales said. “This sham resolution is nothing more than a clumsy PR stunt by the introducers of this resolution to protect the chemical industry from any regulations, thus gaining favors and votes of the chemical industry, while attempting to dupe the public into believing they, the introducers, are environmentally responsible.”

Koohan Paik had another word for it.

“Basically, you’re gaslighting the community by purporting to do one thing and doing something else,” Paik said.

Abel Lui, who has been carrying photos of dead owls he says were killed by herbicide spraying, brought them again to the meeting. An emotional Lui, who said he was arrested several years ago for trying to block spraying, vowed not to give up.

“We are the evidence,” Lui said. “If you guys are gonna keep spraying poisons, you’re not welcome here.”

Attempts by some council members to postpone the measure failed 3-4, with Kohala Councilman Tim Richards absent and North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff briefly absent because of a dropped connection with the West Hawaii Civic Center, where she was attending the meeting by videoconference.

“I’m not going to support this resolution,” said Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter. “I did hear loud and clear from the public. … The public really just feels this legislation is smoke and mirrors.”

South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David praised the administration for moving forward on its initiatives to reduce herbicide use and begin creating a vegetation management committee even without the bill. But she said it’s more appropriate for Villegas to forward new legislation on the matter, if it’s necessary.

“I would like the introducer to complete her journey in this measure that she spent a lot of time on,” David said.

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Villegas said the public “deserves better” than the resolution.

“It lacks the force of law,” Villegas said. “Hundreds of people have reached out to me after Bill 101 (failed) asking me not to give up. … There were a number of concerns with this being a common political play.”

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