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Herbicide Ban Dies as Council Fails to Override Mayoral Veto

January 8, 2020, 4:39 PM HST
* Updated January 8, 5:26 PM
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EPA photo.

The Hawai‘i County Council on Tuesday fell one vote shy of overriding Mayor Harry Kim’s veto of Bill 101, which would have eliminated the use of herbicides on county-owned and maintained property across the Big Island.

In the face of overwhelming community support for the herbicide ban, the Council voted 5-4 to override Kim’s veto. However, a super majority of at least six votes was required to push the law through the mayor’s opposition.

The vote swung on the reversal of District 4 Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, who voted for Bill 101 upon its final reading in November when it passed by a tally of 6-3.

She was the only Councilmember to change her position Wednesday, saying she was initially surprised by Kim’s veto, which caused her to take a closer look at the legislation.

“We’re coming to find out now there were opportunities missed to hit the pause button … to address concerns and build consensus,” said Kierkiewicz, adding she wanted to “protect her children from imperfect laws” and “do things the right way.”

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Bill sponsor Rebecca Villegas, the Councilwoman from District 7, argued that while it may have flaws, the legislation was “good enough” and “must become law” because while administrations and priorities change, law remains.

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“This is a good law. This is a fair law. This is a just law,” Villegas said passionately.

Valerie Poindexter, District 1, doubled down on Villegas’s position and scoffed at the proposed notion of a resolution.

“A resolution is nothing,” she said to Mayor Harry Kim, who attended the meeting in the Hilo Council Chambers Wednesday. “I’m disappointed you did the veto and did not honor the decision of the Council.”

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“No bill is perfect,” she continued, adding it should be supported because she didn’t want the Council to “get stuck in a whirlwind of not getting anything done.”

Maile David, of District 6, joined Villegas, Poindexter and Councilmembers Matt Kaneali’i-Kleinfelder (District 5) and Karen Eoff (District 8) in supporting the passage of Bill 101 and the override of the mayoral veto.

David used her time to point out that the implementation of the ban would take place over a four-year period, leaving open the possibility to amend the law and address relevant operational concerns and/or problematic language.

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That, she said, would leave the Council with options. However, by failing to override Kim’s decision, the herbicide ban is now effectively dead, as it can’t be resurrected “with substantially the same form” until the next session.

It was precisely this result that Kaneali’i-Kleinfelder was hoping to avoid, as he pointed out the redundancy and financial wastefulness of rehashing the same issue over and again.

Cost to the county was one of a handful of trademark arguments against the herbicide ban, and several on the Council, as well as several members of the community, gave voice to that concern Wednesday.

Kaneali’i-Kleinfelder said the cost argument struck him as “ironic” considering every hour the Council spends in session costs taxpayers roughly $10,000. Around six hours were spent Wednesday hearing many of the same arguments from Councilmembers and the community, alike.

“If this (bill) goes away, then years and years and years of work goes away, and I’d say more than $50,000 is going to go down the drain,” he said. “There is concern cost to the county will be extreme, but I have not seen any real document from anywhere that shows without question what the cost is going to be.”

The county has had since June 21, 2019, to determine and/or project overall cost, Kaneali’i-Kleinfelder continued.

Those voting in opposition of the bill, or rather to support Mayor Kim’s veto, were Kierkiewicz, Aaron Chung (District 2), Sue Lee Loy (District 3) and Dr. Tim Richards (District 9).

Richards has been the most stalwart opponent of the herbicide ban, standing in opposition to it since its introduction.

He said Wednesday he supports a reduction in the county’s use of chemicals over time and that no one is more supportive of the bee population than he is.

Supporters of the ban have quoted scientists who have said bees are harmed by herbicide use, as is the development of children. Multiple studies invoked by ban supporters Wednesday also point to chemicals like glyphosate in products like Roundup as carcinogens, which promote the formation of cancer.

Richards said he’s science-oriented but that the science on herbicides “is not clear” and indicates that further investigation is needed.

Ultimately, Richards’s main concern is for agricultural production on the island. That was also the most common argument against the herbicide ban from those in the community who offered public testimony Wednesday. Community members testifying in support of the ban pointed most frequently to health concerns, namely for children.

“Categorical denial of use of these tools (chemicals) is wrong,” Richards said. “It’s a stepping stone. … I see this as a non-supportive move for agriculture in the future.”

When addressing fears from the agricultural industry, Kaneali’i-Kleinfelder grew exasperated, covered his face and rubbed his eyes.

“We’re not banning chemicals in agriculture,” he said. “We’re not affecting agriculture. It’s frustrating.”

Bill 101 was directed specifically and solely at county use of herbicides on county property. No agricultural production or private use was outlined as prohibited in any way.

However, Richards and others employed the term “slippery slope,” implying the legislation, if passed, might have proven the basis for laws against chemical use in agriculture down the line.

In a meeting with Villegas before his veto, Mayor Kim reportedly said he was hesitant to support the bill because it “might hurt the reputation of the herbicides,” which lines up with the idea that fear around herbicide use would spill over into the cultivation of local crops.

Kim’s comments were turned against him throughout the day, with several members of the public questioning the mayor’s commitment to the health of his constituency or outright accusing him of being “bought out” by chemical companies.

“It’s very difficult to sit back there and listen to everything,” Kim said when addressing the Council directly on Wednesday. “I don’t yield to pressure of business. I resent that.”

He added that anyone who questions his commitment to the well being of Big Islanders, particularly children, should reference his last 50 years in public service.

The mayor also noted that the County Department of Parks and Recreation has claimed a 40% reduction in the use of herbicides over the past few years, but Villegas countered by pointing out the Parks and Recreation numbers don’t line up with numbers from the Department of Finance. This, she said, indicates the county may not even know how much glyphosate it’s using on a yearly basis.

As part of his veto, Kim pointed to potential mis-characterizations of glyphosate in the language of the bill by citing contradictory studies. He also pointed to a lack of explanation as to why certain herbicides were included in the list.

He echoed both those concerns Wednesday.

Chung explained that it was the inclusion of nearly two dozen herbicides on the list of banned chemicals without adequate explanation that left him in opposition of the herbicide ban.

He and Lee Loy both mentioned concerns regarding the Hilo Municipal Golf Course in their decision not to support the bill when it passed the Council in November.

“Ban glyphosate but allow selective poisoning on the greens (at the golf course) … and get rid of the other 23 chemicals (on the list),” he said, seeming to speak directly to Villegas. “That’s all I asked for.”

Chung said he felt the mayor’s four-page veto offered a balanced perspective, which strengthened the resolve he felt in his own decision not to support Bill 101. Chung then went on to criticize those on both sides of the argument, saying that people “are just listening to who they want to listen to.”

“I have the impression that nobody is listening to the other side,” he said. “This measure has driven a wedge between many segments of our population. That’s not good.”

Kaneali’i-Kleinfelder boiled the issue down to what he believes is its heart — scientific evidence that should, in theory, be able to unite both sides of the argument over a herbicide ban with one fact: That herbicides the county uses can result in the formation of cancer over time.

“What else do you need to know?” he asked.

 

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