EPA to Investigate Civil Rights Abuses Over Pesticide Use in Hawaii


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is opening an investigation into whether the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA) and the state Agribusiness Development Corporation (ADC) are discriminating against Native Hawaiians in their administration of the state’s pesticide program. The investigation comes after a number of local community groups, represented by the nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice, filed a complaint in September 2016 asking EPA to take action against systemic abuses of Native Hawaiian peoples. Local efforts to protect pesticide-exposed communities have been repeatedly stymied by giant pesticide corporations operating on the island, which filed lawsuits that ultimately struck down local laws.

EPA’s investigation will focus on the state’s activity on the islands of Kauai and Moloka’i. “The External Civil Rights Compliance Office will investigate whether in administering the pesticides program and the leasing and licensing of the state land program the HDOA and/or ADC discriminated on the basis of race and/or national origin against farm workers and residents of West Kauai and Molokai, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and EPA’s implementing regulation,” wrote Lilian Dorka, director of EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office(ERCO), in a letter to Earthjustice.

Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, any recipient of federal funds is prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. In their original letter to EPA, community groups and Earthjustice assert that despite the fact that agrichemical companies have concentrated their pesticide-intensive seed production operations in western Kauai and Molokai, where more than four times the statewide percentage of Native Hawaiians live, the state has failed to limit the registration of harmful pesticides, and failed to require protective buffer zones between pesticide use and local communities. EPA will also be investigating the fact that, as revealed in letters sent to Earthjustice in spring 2016, neither HDOA nor ADC have a Title VI compliance program, which is also part of federal funding requirements.

“I am a Native Hawaiian mother of two children who have had to be tested for pesticide exposure,” said Malia Chun, member of community group Moms on a Mission (MOM) Hui in an Earthjustice press release. “Both my children tested positive for 32 different pesticides. I come from a community with one of the highest populations of Native Hawaiian and native speakers in the state of HawaiÊ»i. We are surrounded by test fields for genetically modified crops that have restricted-use pesticides sprayed on them daily. We need action to protect my community’s health and wellbeing.”

After a nearly decade long battle against multinational pesticide corporations on the islands, Native Hawaiian communities subject to excessive and incessant pesticide spray have seen little recourse. The passage of historic local legislation in the face of intense industry pressure did little to change the way state departments deal with pesticide use on the islands. Data released in 2014 reveal that high levels of restricted use pesticides, in some cases almost double the pounds per acre average of other states, are being used in Kauai County. According to the Center for Food Safety, in 2014 alone, there were 1,381 field test sites in Hawaii, compared to only 178 sites in California, a large agricultural state. Most of these field test sites are used for crops genetically engineered to be herbicide-tolerant. Testing these crops means repeated spraying of dangerous chemicals in Native Hawaiian communities.

HDOA has been criticized for its embrace of a voluntary “Good Neighbor” reporting program pushed by Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Dow AgroSciences, and other agrichemical companies on the islands. Despite recent expansions to that program, advocates say it is simply not enough to ensure real protections for people that live, work, and go to school near these toxic sites. Ashley Lukens, PhD, program director at the Hawaii Center for Food Safety, noted in a recent Civil Beat article, “Voluntary programs have an abysmal history of regulatory failure, particularly when it comes to environmental protection. I think more transparency is always an improvement, but this is in no way a replacement for mandatory disclosure.”

Despite a renewed focus on state-level action after local protections were struck down, state legislators have yet to take any significant action to address this issue. Late last week, a measure to implement mandatory public disclosure was struck down through surreptitious legislative maneuvering. Chemical companies continue to advocate for the status quo, which allows them to maintain current levels of pesticide use with little oversight.

Advocates hope this new EPA investigation will result in a mechanism to enact long-sought protections in Hawaii for Native peoples. “We are pleased the EPA has agreed to investigate these practices,” said Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff in a press release. “The spraying of toxic chemicals on and near Hawaii’s affluent neighborhoods would not be tolerated. It’s not acceptable in these neighborhoods, either. Native Hawaiians deserve much more than the State’s vague assurances and voluntary gestures from pesticide users.”

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