Mahi Pono, Maui’s largest landowner, sprayed the highly toxic chemical paraquat on fields near the Maui Baseyard in Pu‘unene six times last September and October, according to Hawai‘i’s Department of Agriculture Annual Restricted Use Pesticide (RUP) Reporting Forms. MauiTime obtained the forms through a Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA) request. Based on weather data for those dates, on all but one occasion, the paraquat applications were initiated at a time when wind speeds were higher than the wind speed limits mandated by the manufacturer. The wind speeds often exceeded those limits for hours at a time, while the chemical was still active.
On two other October dates, Mahi Pono also applied another RUP called cyfluthrin. Cyfluthrin is an insecticide described by its manufacturer, Bayer, as “highly toxic” to bees and marine organisms. In February, 2019, Mahi Pono’s then-general manager Larry Nixon told MauiTime that one of the bigger problems he anticipated for the then newly purchased 41,000-acre ag land was the lack of bees, noting, “There aren’t enough bees on this island to support the island.”
The Mahi Pono report was one of hundreds of pages of documents furnished by the state agency in response to MauiTime’s request for information about Hawai‘i companies’ 2019 applications of restricted use pesticides. (Reports for 2020 won’t be due until January 30, 2021.) Restricted use pesticides are not available for public use, often due to their toxicity, and can only be used by a licensed applicator. The RUP reports include the chemical’s name, the date, time, and amount applied, and the location and area size treated. The annual reporting requirement began with the 2018 enactment of Hawai‘i’s Act 45, the first law of its kind in the country. It restricts use of RUPs near schools, mandates annual RUP reporting by users, and has phased in a ban on the toxic chemical chlorpyrifos.
(The bill originally included a requirement for public notification 24 hours prior to application of any pesticide. During hearings on the bill, then-Board of Agriculture chairman Scott Enright, now a Mahi Pono lobbyist, testified against that specific provision – and the bill in general. The 24-hour notification provision was absent from the final bill.)
MauiTime reported January 25 on Mahi Pono’s use, and alleged misuse, of paraquat, described by the Center for Biological Diversity as “the most acutely toxic chemical in use today: Just a teaspoon is enough to kill a grown adult.” It’s banned by many countries, including China, but legal in the United States. When China announced its paraquat ban in 2012, it asserted that the decision was made “to maintain the health and safety of people’s lives.” In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency wrote, “There is a large body of epidemiology data on paraquat dichloride use and Parkinson’s disease.” Manufacturers argue that the scope of such studies have been inadequate.
Mahi Pono did not respond to a request for comment regarding the allegations, but two days before the January 25 story ran, Mahi Pono (whose name means “to grow or cultivate properly”) issued a press release from senior vice president of operations Shan Tsutsui entitled “Mahi Pono Bringing Sustainable Ag to Maui,” which was published by MauiNow. It highlighted the company’s decision to ban RoundUp on its fields, “which we know is important to our community and our environment,” Tsutsui wrote. At the time of his statement, Mahi Pono had already been applying the toxic chemicals paraquat and cyfluthrin to its fields instead.
“[Paraquat and cyfluthrin] are not chemicals that are used in sustainable production practices,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of the national nonprofit organization, Beyond Pesticides. “There are indications that these chemicals could be endocrine disruptors. That means there could be long-term effects on children, from basic organ function to effects on IQ.”
Mahi Pono’s “Conventional” Chemicals
Since MauiTime’s report, Mahi Pono has repeatedly stated that it practices “conventional” farming techniques (i.e., using chemicals) but has never mentioned paraquat by name, nor specifically addressed the reasons behind its use.
Mahi Pono’s 2019 report to the state Department of Agriculture’s Pesticides Branch listed eight RUP uses – six applications of paraquat and two of cyfluthrin – made between September 18 and October 24 at two locations, identified by Maui property tax map numbers and field numbers. One, Field 902, is located west of Veterans Highway and north of the Maui Humane Society across from the Maui Baseyard in Pu‘unene; the other, Field 809, is located approximately 1.5 miles east and upslope from the Maui Baseyard. In September, 2019, both fields were unprotected by any kind of windbreaks, often recommended when toxic chemicals are used.
Mahi Pono applied paraquat, in the form of Syngenta’s Gramoxone SL 2.0 brand, to Field 809 at 4:30pm on September 18 and 5pm on October 5. Gramoxone was applied on Field 902 at 6pm on October 2, 8, 22, and 24, according to its RUP report.
Restricted use pesticides come with “labels,” giving strict mandates for use. The 55-page label for Gramoxone SL 2.0 qualifies the product as an RUP “due to acute toxicity.” In addition to being “toxic to wildlife,” the label issues the following warning about drift: “Gramoxone SL 2.0 is a contact herbicide that desiccates all green plant tissue. Paraquat dichloride…will cause damage to nontarget crops and plants if off-target movement occurs. Extreme care must be taken to ensure that off-target drift is minimized to the greatest extent possible. Do not apply when weather conditions favor drift from treated areas.”
The label issues the following wind “window” for application: “Drift potential is lowest between wind speeds of 2-10 mph.” MauiTime used this wind speed window when examining hourly wind conditions for the dates Mahi Pono sprayed restricted use chemicals. Wind speed was measured at the Maui Airport in Kahului, located about 4 miles away from both fields. The data was compiled by Custom Weather, which provides historical weather data to the website Timeanddate.com. In most cases, the wind was blowing in typical trade wind fashion from the north or northeast, which moves over the fields toward Kihei or Ma‘alaea Harbor. After being measured at the airport on the north side of the island, wind speeds often increase through the Central Valley due to its location between two tall volcanoes. The geography creates a wind tunnel or “venturi effect,” which can create fast-moving, gusty winds.
Said Beyond Pesticides’ Feldman, “Label restrictions do not often take local conditions into account. Maui has severe wind conditions that raise serious potential harm questions relative to exposure and non-target drift.”
High Wind Speeds
According to the RUP report, Mahi Pono’s first application of paraquat was made on 40 acres on September 18, 2019 at 4:30pm on Field 809, east and upslope from the Maui Baseyard. Twenty-five minutes later, the recorded wind speed at the airport was 14 mph, in excess of the 10 mph Gramaxone label ceiling for “low drift.” For three of the next four hours after application, the wind was still blowing in excess of the label ceiling, from 12-14 mph.
On October 2, Gramoxone was applied to 72 acres at Field 902 west of the Maui Baseyard at 6pm, according to the record filed with the state. Four minutes earlier, the airport recorded a 16 mph wind speed, 6 mph higher than the Syngenta’s recommended 2-10 mph limit. And in the 24 hours following the application, wind speeds exceeded 20 mph for 7 hours, and ranged from 12-18 mph for a 15-hour period.
On October 5, Gramoxone was applied to 40 acres on Field 809 at 5pm. At 4:54pm, the recorded wind speed at the airport was 14 mph. An hour later, it was still blowing at 13 mph. Gramoxone was applied at 6pm on October 8 on 50 acres of land at Field 902. The wind speed recorded at the airport was 13 miles per hour, outside the 2-10 mph label window, and remained that way for an hour..
On October 22 at 5:54 pm, the wind speed at the airport was 20 mph, double the Gramoxone application limit. But minutes later, the paraquat product was applied to 35 acres on Field 902. During the next two hours, wind speeds continued at 15 mph. Only on October 24 did Mahi Pono’s paraquat application to 50 acres on Field 902 at 6pm conform to the label requirements, with a recorded wind speed of 10 mph at the airport.
Mahi Pono applied Bayer’s Baythroid XL, a product containing cyfluthrin, two times to 40 acres on Field 809, on October 8 and 23. Baythroid is listed as a RUP “due to toxicity to fish and aquatic organisms.” Field 809 is located several miles north of Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge. The warning adds, “This pesticide is highly toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment or residues on blooming crops or weeds. Do not apply this product or allow it to drift to blooming crops or weeds on which bees are actively foraging.
“Only apply this product when the wind direction favors on-target deposition,” the label continues, with a warning not to apply “when the wind velocity exceeds 15 miles per hour.” On both October 8 and 23, the pesticide application stayed within the label limits with wind speeds of 13 mph and 12 mph, respectively, recorded at the airport.
What happens when wind speeds exceed a pesticide’s label limits? When contacted, a spokesman at the Pesticides Branch of the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture said that inspections are launched into “all” complaints from “the public and other concerned citizens.” In addition, state inspectors also conduct reviews of pesticide applicators’ records to “determine if there was a misuse of a pesticide in question.”
Mahi Pono was contacted for comment this week and asked a number of questions about its paraquat use, the excessive wind speeds during application, and whether the public needed to be informed before RUP’s were used in Maui’s Central Valley. As usual, the company failed to provide even a “no comment” response. Yet, in a January 4 Maui News interview, the company’s new chief operating officer, Tim O’Laughlin, proclaimed the company’s desire to be “a good neighbor.”
The California water attorney said, “If you see something and you have a question, let us know. We want to be good neighbors. We’re here for the long haul. We want people on Maui to be proud of us and we want to be a part of the community.”
(As part of this “good neighbor” proclamation in early January, O’Laughlin mentioned a Pukalani concern about blowing tractor dust and said the company had altered “the whole program” on how it approached dust. Last Friday, social media filled with images of a massive dust plume from tilling on Mahi Pono fields blowing toward Ma‘alaea Harbor.)
A “Sustainable Agriculture” Company?
Given Mahi Pono’s use of paraquat and cyfluthrin, can it really be described as practicing sustainable agriculture?
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, quoting US Code Title 7, Section 3103, says the definition includes enhancing “environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends,” and making “the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources” and integrating, “where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.”
Jay Feldman’s answer was short and succinct: “No.” He added, “These are not chemicals that protect health and the environment. If one wants to practice sustainable [agriculture], there are numerous approaches to land management that can meet that goal. This is not one of them.”
To University of Hawai‘i professor Hector Valenzuela, a crop specialist at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, Mahi Pono’s environmental stewardship might have qualified as sustainable had the paraquat been applied as a “single, one-use pesticide used as a last resort.”
However, after hearing the list of October dates when paraquat was sprayed on two Mahi Pono fields, Valenzuela amended his comment. The company’s RUP record “would signal that they’re using it as part of their conventional treatments,” he told MauiTime last week. “If they’re using it as part of their traditional practice every time they prepare a field, that wouldn’t be a positive sign. If they’re claiming to be sustainable, that’s not a very good sign that they’re looking for alternatives.”
Valenzuela said a company claiming to practice sustainable agriculture should also “be transparent. A community just wants disclosure: ‘You guys are spraying these products. Can you provide us with a list of the products that you’re applying? What might we be getting exposed to? When do you apply it? What was the wind speed?’ Just be open with the community.”
Mike Moran, president of the Kihei Community Association, embodied Valenzuela’s comments.
“When we first met Mahi Pono representatives last year, we had high hopes that they were aiming at regenerative practices to cleanse the long contaminated soil, with minimal use of chemicals,” Moran said last week. “But paraquat? Its use is highly restricted by conditions like wind. Tradewinds here are frequent and South Maui is almost always downwind from Central Maui, with no windbreaks. Is Mahi Pono using caution? We saw huge plumes of dust sweeping from the fields last week right into Ma’alaea and Ma’alaea Bay. What’s in that soil? Our community is very concerned. Mahi Pono and the State Department of Health owe us answers.”
Cover design by Albert Cortez