HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A proposal to create pesticide-free buffer zones around schools and hospitals in Hawaii will be introduced at the State Legislature in the next day or so, but the chairman of the state Board of Agriculture said it's targeting the wrong sector of farming.
The proposal would prohibit farmers from using large amounts of pesticides -- whose use is restricted by the Environmental Protection Agency -- near schools and hospitals across the state.
If state lawmakers approve the proposal, Hawaii would join 33 other states that have similar restrictions.
"We want to provide meaningful protections that are going to keep pesticides from drifting into our schools and hospitals and affecting our kids," said State Rep. Chris Lee, chair of the State House environmental protection committee. "I think protecting our kids from chemicals is a common sense thing that everybody can get behind."
Lee pointed to examples in recent years of students getting sick from pesticides used by farmers near schools, such as a 2007 incident in Kahuku in which about a dozen kids fell ill at one school when a nearby sod farmer ignored windy weather while applying pesticides.
There were several incidents in 2008 in Waimea on Kauai, where dozens of students got sick after farmers applied pesticide was applied on a nearby seed corn plot.
"Hawaii, essentially, is almost all small-farm agriculture," said Chris Manfredi, the head of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, which represents farmers across the state and has 2,000 members.
Manfreidi is worried buffer zones could adversely affect farmers on smaller plots of land.
"It's pretty tough farming in Hawaii as is, and some of our members are on a ragged edge. If you start to push them in the wrong direction, you might see some of them fail," Manfredi said.
The bill set to be introduced will not propose a specific size of the buffer zones, so specifics can be worked out based on public testimony, Lee said.
"We want to bring people to the table and find out a solution that works best for everybody. Not every situation is a one-size-fits-all and we recognize that," Lee said.
Lawmakers have said one potential size range is 500 to 1,000 feet for the pesticide-free zones.
Manfredi and other industry representatives could not estimate how many farms fall that close to schools and hospitals and might be affected.
If the pesticide legislation is targeting large seed companies such as Monsanto and Dow, the state agriculture director said it's off the mark.
"Biotech companies apply pesticides better than anybody ever has in the history of this state," said Scott Enright, chairman of the state Board of Agriculture.
Enright said the bigger problem comes from small farms and average homeowners, such as an incident at Honokaa High and Intermediate School on the Big Island in September, when a neighbor using weed killer caused 50 students and faculty to seek medical attention.
But Lee said, "This is not targeting small farmers. This is targeting those large commercial operations that are using massive amounts of restricted use pesticides on a regular basis."
Enright said he's confident all sides can come to some kind of agreement on buffer zones during this year's legislative session.
"There's a lot of conversation about buffer zones, so I believe we will have that conversation and find something that works for everyone," Enright said.
"We have no idea the impact that pesticide drift is having when it's low level daily exposure but the science tells us that that kind of exposure is also dangerous," said Ashley Lukens, director of the Hawaii Center for Food Safety, which is lobbying in favor of the buffer zone legislation.
Lukens said even if the seed industry farms in Hawaii are "responsible pesticide users, that doesn't negate the need for disclosure (of pesticide types and amounts) and the need to mitigate low level exposure."