THE HILL 02/17/17
By Michael Shank and Danya Hakeem
This year is set to witness one the greatest rollbacks of environmental protections in Republican history. Even if Scott Pruitt hadn’t been confirmed this week as the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) administrator, Republicans are already easing the restrictions on coal mining and rolling back regulations intended to keep our streams pristine and healthy.
The White House’s decision last week to fast track the Dakota Access Pipeline, threatening Native American tribes’ health and sovereignty, further shows just willing is the GOP to undo protections.
This is just the beginning. More is coming as President Donald Trump has already intimated a withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and a desire to ramp up fossil fuel extraction on public lands.
This is in direct contrast to the standards set by previous conservative American presidents. No Nixon-era commitment to environmental quality happening here.
What isn’t being discussed in the mad dash to protect the EPA from further undermining – and keep in place the country’s Paris-related commitments to climate action and greenhouse gas emissions reductions – is the likely escalated application of toxic chemicals on our food, families and farms.
One clear indication that the EPA could increase chemical use is that the EPA transition team was led by Myron Bell from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, whose known sponsors included Monsanto and Dow Chemical. It’s clear that this will be a pro-chemical EPA.
No U.S. state knows Monsanto toxins better than Hawaii, a state that’s already witnessed its fair share of pesticide testing. In fact, Hawaii hosts more field trials for new varieties of genetically engineered crops than any other state.
The multinational pesticide-seed industry, including corporations like Syngenta, Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, has been using the Hawaiian Islands as an open air experimental test site for pesticide-promoting GE crops for years.
Here’s the particularly harmful hit to Hawaii’s health. Because of the state’s dense population and limited space, people are often forced to live, work and go to school near these pesticide-laden fields.
There is significant scientific and medical literature linking pesticide exposure in utero and early childhood with neuro-development disabilities like autism and ADHD, as well as leukemia and asthma. Far from a vacation destination, Hawaii has become dangerous and even deadly because of this excessive and extensive pesticide testing.
Thankfully, the resistance against this pesticide testing is alive and well in Hawaii and will, no doubt, ramp up under the new Republican administration and GOP-controlled Congress. Thousands of people have taken to the streets on Maui, Kauaʻi and Hawaii Islands and passed county ordinances to regulate the agri-chemical operations.
Unsurprisingly, the pesticide-seed industry sued in response and the 9th circuit court of appeals ended up overruling local sovereignty in favor of state regulation of pesticides and commercialized GMO cultivation, noting that the federal government has the sole authority to regulate field trials of GMOs.
The EPA, to be clear, has never sufficiently protected the people in Hawaii, or any other state, from the harmful effects of toxic pesticide exposure. It has a long history of approving and releasing pesticides that are only taken off the market after harming thousands of people and the environment.
After phasing out the indoor residential use of the insecticide chlorpyrifos in 2000, for example, because of the known impacts on children’s health, the EPA only considered banning it for all agricultural use in 2015 after a federal court order demanded action. Until the final decision is made, this insecticide will continue to impact towns close to the agri-chemical company operations.
The EPA, furthermore, normally only tests the active ingredient of each pesticide, not the inert ingredients that could increase the product’s overall toxicity. And it tests only one pesticide at a time, even though in everyday life we are exposed to multiple pesticides (up to 90 different formulations on Kauaʻi alone) that can have cumulative or synergistic effects.
The EPA also fails to sufficiently regulate pesticide drift, which is especially concerning in windy, rainy climates like Hawaii, and they often base their analysis on short term studies conducted by the industry rather than an independent scientific body.
For the people of Hawaii, this laissez faire approach by federal government to human health is putting too many people at risk and the state is not stepping up. The Hawaii Department of Agriculture continually shifts the responsibility to the EPA, claiming that they follow federal mandates and no additional precautions need to be taken. Yet, this is clearly not the case. And now with a Trump administration and a GOP-controlled Congress that is so pro-industry and anti-regulation, this could be catastrophic for people who are exposed daily and directly to pesticides.
One ounce of hope for pro-health, anti-pesticide communities right now are the resistance movements rising up all across America. The solidarity is going viral and people are protesting and engaging like never before and on behalf of impacted populations getting shafted by the new administration.
Since Hawaii’s local counties were some of the first to pass ordinances to regulate chemicals companies, it will be the local activists who will rise again. But this time they’ll be armed by an America on fire and ready to help resist the Republican rollback of environmental regulations. This is about protecting people and our environment — from pesticides, from pollution, from Pruitt. And Hawaii will be ground zero for the pesticide fight. Get ready.
Michael Shank, Ph.D., teaches sustainable development at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. Danya Hakeem is the Program Director for Hawaii Center for Food Safety, based in Honolulu, Hawaii.