Hawaii Wakes Up To Pesticides
This article originally appeared in the March 2, 1985, issue of The Nation.
Every year the blessings of statehood are officially celebrated in Hawaii. There are echoes of Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July in the ceremonies, and the rhetoric often sounds as though it were composed for the benefit of the swirling tourists from the mainland: part of a packaged welcome designed to make them feel at once far away and right at home. But among residents of Hawaii statehood is not universally considered a privilege. Despite the speeches and the presence of tourists and the military, despite the local maneuvers of multinational corporations based heaven knows where, the mainland and the Federal government seem, most of the time, remote and unreal.
The Federal government’s directives regarding Hawaii, thousands of miles from Washington, sometimes add to the sense of remoteness. Last month, for instance, the residents of Maui were startled to learn, from the island newspaper and the radio, that the Department of Agriculture had been working on a plan to “eradicate” from the islands what the planners refer to as the tri-fly. The term refers to three species of fruit fly, of which the best known is the so-called Mediterranean fruit fly. Parts of California were sprayed for this insect up to twenty times in recent years with results that have not been fully publicized.
The new plan proposes spraying all the Hawaiian Islands, over a period of six years, with six poisons, three of them organophosphates, several of them suspected carcinogens and mutagens. Of the organophosphates, the most familiar is malathion, which was used in California and, before that, in Florida. The plan proposes spraying some 2.9 million pounds of malathion on the islands, roughly three pounds for each inhabitant, in a manner that is in open violation of the Federal law quoted on the label that must accompany the product when it is sold in stores.
By the time the residents of Maui heard of the plan, some $200,000, to which their own taxes had contributed, had been spent in drawing up a draft environmental impact statement, which is required before Congress will vote funds for the plan. According to Hampton Carson, a distinguished geneticist from the University of Hawaii, there had been a “scoping session,” which apparently means a preliminary discussion by chosen local representatives of this and that, in January of last year on Oahu. The public remained largely unaware of the program. In mid-December a meeting to discuss it was announced very unobtrusively in the Honolulu papers and drew only a small number of professionals who already knew about the plan—biologists, doctors, medical researchers and a member of the Papaya Administrative Committee. They attacked the proposal as ludicrous, impracticable, impossible, absurdly expensive. Carson spoke of the inappropriateness of spraying in the rugged valleys of the islands and of the devastation it would wreak on the fragile remnants of Hawaii’s ecosystem. Even the spokesman for the papaya industry, which devotes a considerable sum every year to combating the fruit flies, said that he and his industry were not in favor of trying to eradicate the flies “at the expense of the health and welfare of Hawaii’s people.”
No public meetings were scheduled on Kauai, though the plan proposed to start the spraying there. A member of the Maui County Council had persuaded Edward Stubbs of the USDA to come to a pre-Christmas meeting in a lecture room at the community college, where public gatherings are not generally held. Primed by stories about the Honolulu session, a crowd of at least 250 people turned out, only to be told by Richard Doutt, a Federal consultant, that their comments should not address the proposal as such but only the draft environmental impact statement, which most of them had not heard of until that moment and which had been, for all practical purposes, unavailable to the public on Maui. Stubbs prefaced the meeting with a soothing statement that the project was only a “proposal” and did not have any of “the pressure of a pending program,” but few in the room seemed reassured.
In the words of Wayne Gagne, an entomologist from the Bishop Museum, the 330-page draft statement is a sophisticated document, if not a full, adequate or straightforward treatment. In 1962, despite the US chemical industry’s efforts to suppress her book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson gathered enough evidence to enable her to describe the effects of malathion poisoning on the human body: muscular breakdown and the destruction of the sheaths of the sciatic and spinal nerves. And she pointed out that the combination of malathion with other organophosphates—something very possible in our poison-ridden environment—results in massive poisoning “up to fifty times as severe as would be predicted on the basis of adding together the toxicities of the two.” The plan for spraying Hawaii proposes the use of three organophosphates; only the planners seem to believe that they will not combine. It is also known that repeated exposure to these compounds greatly multiplies the health risk. The USDA plan calls for 108 to 156 sprayings, more than five times as many as in California. Although some of the potential dangers are mentioned, reading the draft statement and its calculations is like reading the Navy’s descriptions of radiation levels in water into which it has spilled or dumped radioactive materials. You would think the result was good for you.
The malathion sprayed in California took the paint off cars, and the draft impact statement does allude to the expense of providing new paint jobs. It does not, however adequately discuss the possible contamination of drinking water on the outer islands of the Hawaiian chain, which depend for the most part on runoff and, in many places, on private rain-catchment systems.
The audience at the Maui meeting, which included biologists, medical researchers, doctors, lawyers, economists and farmers, was fervent, well informed, articulate and unanimously opposed to the proposal. The discussion went on until the building had to be closed for the night, and the nature of it was as much of a surprise to Stubbs as the eradication plan had been to the residents of Maui. He said it left him “emotionally exhausted,’’ and he assured the audience that he had got their message.
News of the proposal came at a time when the subject of pesticides and herbicides was already seething in Hawaii. Ten times as much poison is used in Hawaii per square mile, and three times as much per capita, as in any state on the mainland. In 1981 the Hawaiian pineapple industry was permitted to use the pesticide dibromochloropropane, or DBCP, a carcinogen banned on the mainland by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1979, under a special variance that expired at the beginning of this year. Growers have asked the EPA to allow them to go on using the chemical for two more years, until their stockpiles are depleted. And on three successive days in early January, the Honolulu Star Bulletin reported that residues of heptachlor, DBCP and ethylene dibromide had been discovered in milk and that state officials, consultants from the University of Hawaii and representatives of the pineapple industry had attempted to suppress the facts. This is the context in which the tri-fly eradication proposal emerged into the ken of the people of Maui.
Although Stubbs told the citizens at the meeting that they had until January 16 to send their comments on the impact statement to Washington, he subsequently said that in view of the unforeseen response (which has necessitated printing a new edition of the statement), the deadline has been extended to March 26. But he made that comment in a telephone conversation with a local environmentalist, and skeptics on Maui suggest that once $200,000 have been sunk in a scheme, somebody is going to push to make it go, even though, as the draft statement itself concedes in passing, the proposed spraying program will almost certainly not eradicate the fruit flies, whatever else it may send to extinction. The “somebody” in this case is said to be agribiz interests in the citrus industry in California and Texas and, of course, pesticide manufacturers.
There are economic arguments against the plan as well as medical and environmental ones. Mary Evanson, a member of the executive board of the Maui chapter of the Sierra Club, was rather surprised when Stubbs telephoned her from Maryland on January 4. She says she brought the conversation around to economics, informing him that the State of Hawaii might not be willing to contribute funds for the spraying. (The question of who will pay for it is still not clear.) He told her that the Department of Agriculture had considered that possibility and was prepared to turn to private interests, which he did not name. Evanson told him that the tourist industry might not welcome the spraying program. He said he was not worried. “The tourists,” he said, “don’t need to know.”
P.S. Because of the growing furor, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture recently announced it opposed the U.S.D.A. plan and would fight it in court. In late January, the Oahu supervisor of Hawaii’s pesticide monitoring program testified to a State Senate committee, “Every one of Hawaii’s farmers has misused pesticides.” Said one senator, “Even I am shocked.”