The year was 2014, and Maui was in the middle of a political revolution: For the first time in the county’s history, a voters’ initiative made it onto the ballot, signalling an unprecedented effort of grassroots activism to directly govern with community-drafted and -approved legislation.
The issue was genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the biotechnology-agrochemical corporations that experiment with them on the islands. The bill – which garnered public support and later passed, only to be invalidated in court – was the so-called GMO Moratorium (or “farming ban,” as the Dow and Monsanto-funded group Citizens Against the Maui Farming Ban disingenuously called it).
It was a time when the agrochemical giants who set up shop in Maui County – where the year-round growing season makes perfect conditions for continual chemical testing and seed production – were supposed to be on their best behavior. Monsanto and Dow invested millions in their PR efforts to battle the GMO Moratorium, much of it spent on glossy mail-outs to tout its 600 local employees and the economic benefits that biotechnology brought to Maui.
But it was also a time when Monsanto was breaking the law.
That’s right: At the same time that Monsanto and its surrogates were publishing reports saying that “agricultural biotechnology is proven safe” and that “the safety of our employees, the communities where we operate, our customers, consumers, and the environment will be our highest priority,” the company was doing exactly the opposite.
Last week, on Nov. 21, Monsanto admitted to illegally spraying, storing, and transporting the banned pesticide Penncap-M at Maui County locations in 2014. At the company’s Valley Farm location on Maui, workers were sent into fields just seven days after the chemical was sprayed. That would have violated the rules even before Penncap-M was banned, as the pesticide previously had an REI (Re-Entry Interval, or the time after pesticide application when entry into the area is restricted) of 31 days. According to Cornell University’s Pesticide Management Education Program,Penncap-M is “moderately hazardous” to birds, fish, and beneficial insects, and hazardous to bees.
“The illegal conduct in this case posed a threat to the environment, surrounding communities, and Monsanto workers,” said US attorney Nick Hanna of the Central District of California, which handled the case. “Federal laws and regulations impose a clear duty on every user of regulated and dangerous chemicals to ensure the products are safely stored, transported, and used.”
In a plea agreement, Monsanto agreed to pay $10.2 million in fines: $6.2 million in criminal penalties, and $4 million as “community service payments” split between Hawai‘i’s Department of Agriculture, Department of Land and Natural Resources, Department of Health Hazardous Waste Branch, DOH Environmental Management Division, and Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission.
The company will spend two years on probation, during which it will have to develop, maintain, and implement a compliance program requiring third-party audits every six months for each Hawai‘i location. The compliance program will have to be implemented within 90 days of Monsanto’s sentencing date, which will likely be in December, said US Attorney’s Office spokesperson Thom Mrozek.
“We take this very seriously and accept full responsibility for our actions,” said Bayer vice president of communications for North America, Darren Wallis.
State Senator Roz Baker (D-South and West Maui) had tough words for the company. Baker told KHON2 last week that she’s “hoping Monsanto will do the right thing, pay it, not quibble, and stop using these pesticides or get out of Maui… They knew they shouldn’t have used them, they did it anyway. I don’t know how they ever earn the communities [sic] trust again.”
But for some, her words are too little, too late.
Kihei resident Deb Mader has been advocating for pesticide legislation since 2013 and was made aware of Monsanto’s illegal use of Penncap-M back in 2014, when she was given leaked copies of the company’s spray logs which listed the banned chemical.
After the GMO Moratorium was challenged in court and activists’ hopes for stronger pesticide regulations were put on hold, Mader and others shifted their focus to state-level advocacy for similar causes, including pesticide buffer zones and mandatory disclosure of chemicals applied to fields. Part of their efforts included sharing the data of Monsanto’s illegal pesticide use at public testimony and with state officials, including Sen. Baker and then-head of the state Department of Agriculture, Scott Enright.
“We can’t just sit and say they [pesticide applicators] went to school, they’re very well versed, we trust them, they’re fine. When in reality, it [compliance] is just not happening,” Mader is heard saying in an audio recording of a March 2015 meeting with Baker. The discussion was about 2015’s SB793, a bill which would have established mandatory reporting for pesticide use. A month before their meeting, in February 2015, the bill was referred to a joint meeting of Baker’s Commerce, Consumer Protection, and Health Committee and Sen. Jill Tokuda’s Ways and Means Committee, where it was never scheduled for a hearing and died in legislative limbo.
After placing the blame on Tokuda for not hearing SB793, Baker defended the chemical-sprayers: “I’m sure when there are incidents, they speak with their folks. I guess the thing that bothers me is that people assume people do it very cavalierly, and do it on purpose. I just don’t think that’s true.”
A year later, Mader presented the same spray information at a Kihei town hall hosted by Baker and Enright. “Monsanto and the biotech companies are the most profitable agricultural entities we’ve ever had in the state,” Enright responded. “The equipment that they use is state of the art… Nobody in the history of the state has ever applied pesticides better than the biotech companies.” Enright chalked the violation up to human error and vowed to report any future violations the community discovered.
Mader wasn’t the only one sounding the alarm. In written testimony on SB793, Maui resident Dr. Joe Ritter said, “On Maui, nerve agents are being used by Monsanto. The chemical in question is called Methyl Parathion [aka Penncap-M], which is an ACHE, an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. The chemical action and poison mechanism of the nerve agent is identical in mechanism to the chemical warfare agents Sarin gas and VX gas… M-Parathion is sprayed on fields I drive by every day!” Attached to his testimony was a photo of the spray log.
In 2015 there were multiple bills considered to more strictly regulate pesticides. Of the three senate bills I came across that would have required mandatory notice, reporting, or disclosure, none passed. And whenever the bills came to Baker’s committee, she was conveniently excused from the vote. In a Honolulu Civil Beat article from the era, Baker’s reputation preceded her: “Last year, Baker opposed bills targeting the seed industry,” wrote reporter Anita Hofschneider. In the 2014 to 2016 period, Monsanto and Syngenta are listed as donors to Roz Baker’s candidate committee by the Hawai‘i Campaign Spending Commission.
Legislative action to establish buffer zones or mandatory reporting stalled until 2018, when SB3095 was passed. The bill established mandatory reporting and buffer zones around schools. The first reports on the use of “restricted use pesticides” are due at the end of January 2020.
Autumn Ness, now the director of the Hawai‘i Organic Land Management Program of Beyond Pesticides, was also aware of Monsanto’s illegal use of Penncap-M years before the company admitted it last week. She saw the spray log back when she was involved in advocacy for the GMO Moratorium.
Over the phone, Ness sounded unsurprised yet frustrated at the pace of progress. The organization she works for, Beyond Pesticides, recently lobbied the Hawai‘i County Council to vote to ban herbicides on county land. Ness sees the subsequent 6-3 vote as a win, but recognized a pervasive attitude among elected officials which stacks the deck against activists like her and Mader.
“Even when we have the facts in front of us, whatever the HCIA [Hawai‘i Crop Improvement Association] and the Farm Bureau says is truth and they don’t have to prove anything they’re saying,” she said. “We, the ‘grubby activists,’ are left trying to triple check all of our stuff and even when we do submit evidence, they [legislators] don’t want to hear it. That’s what we go through.”
Terez Amato, who ran against Baker in 2018, has been a part of the effort for better pesticide management, and also saw the 2014 spray log, agreed. “We compiled information on restricted pesticide spraying and wind speed and subsequently presented it to the EPA, to Sen. Roz Baker, to the Hawai’i Departments of Agriculture and Department of Health, as well as to the head of Monsanto at a shareholder meeting,” she said. “Some laughed. All ignored the facts until recently.”
As of press time, Sen. Baker did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Photo courtesy Deb Mader