The Hawaii State Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) is proposing to exempt Syngenta operations on public conservation and coastal lands from environmental review – WITHOUT EVEN KNOWING WHAT THOSE ACTIVITIES ARE.
Syngenta is an agrochemical company conducting research that requires a federal permit and the BLNR has not examined those permits prior to reaching a decision to exempt them from environmental review. If they did examine them, they would learn that the proposed research is being conducted in areas adjacent to “critical habitats” populated by various endangered species. They would also learn that the research involves experimenting with food crops not approved for human consumption and not approved for release into the environment. And even a cursory look at Syngenta operations in Hawaii would reveal their use of literally tons of highly toxic Restricted Use Pesticides (RUP’s). This company is one of the largest polluters of ground water on the entire planet and our State grants them a free pass to HRS343 exempting them from environmental review.
Without even looking at the federal permits, the BLNR has come to a decision that the Syngenta activity will have no environmental impact – even though this activity is being conducted on state owned conservation zoned land, adjacent to sensitive coastal areas that include critical habitats and are historically significant Crown lands.
The BLNR has no basis for exempting Syngenta from doing an environmental review.
Anyone who goes to the website of the Department of Land and Natural Resources quickly learns that it “is responsible for managing, administering, and exercising control over public lands, water resources, ocean waters, navigable streams, coastal areas (except commercial harbors), minerals, and all interests therein. The department’s jurisdiction encompasses nearly 1.3 million acres of State lands, beaches, and coastal waters as well as 750 miles of coastline.” This is no small task.
The public needs to be able to count on this oversight being exercised with rigor and integrity.
On October 27, 2017 the State of Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) was on the verge of adopting a staff recommendation on permitting for Syngenta: “That the Board find this project will probably have minimal or no significant effect on the environment and is presumed to be exempt from the preparation of an environmental assessment.”
Fortunately this particular item was withdrawn from the agenda, to be reconsidered at a later date. However similar decisions have already been made by the BLNR and the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) has joined other plaintiffs in a legal filing to require the BLNR/Syngenta to conduct the required environmental review.
What was this particular action, and why would Syngenta be given an exemption from the environmental review process?
The BLNR was poised to renew a revocable permit allowing Syngenta to conduct experimental GMO field trials and related activities on public, coastal, conservation zoned and historically significant Crown Lands.
The intended action included exempting Syngenta from the environmental review process (HRS343) that is required by law.
The BLNR’s staff had determined “this project will probably have minimal or no significant effect of the environment…” even though Syngenta’s own federally required permits on file at the State Department of Health (SDOH) indicate the company would be conducting their field trial research on food crops not approved for human consumption nor approved for release into the open environment, in areas near or adjacent to critical habitats known to contain various endangered species.
As the former Director of the Office of Environmental Quality Control (OEQC), I am keenly aware of the law and rules governing Chapter 343. An exemption in this case is inappropriate for many reasons.
The OEQC’s guidelines state: “If an exempt action is proposed in a particularly sensitive environment, or if successive exempt actions could have a cumulative impact, the exempt status of the action would be invalid.”
This provision supersedes all “standard exemptions” cited by the BLNR in justifying an exemption to the law requiring an environmental impact review.
Conservation lands should be protected
The parcel proposed for Syngenta’s use is situated in a coastal area, a portion of which is designated State Land Use District: Conservation. The particularly sensitive environment of coastal areas and conservation land in general, is sufficient reason to require a thorough environmental review.
The provision relating to “if successive exempt actions could have a cumulative impact” also certainly applies.
Syngenta is an agrochemical company that conducts intensive research on crops that are federally regulated and that require large amounts of Restricted Use Pesticides. The cumulative impact of Syngenta’s use of highly toxic chemicals over a number of years in a sensitive coastal area has never been evaluated. The risks to health and environment from decades of chronic exposure must be evaluated prior to the approval of any permit extensions.
Syngenta does not engage in “customary or ordinary agriculture.”
There have been no environmental assessments, not even of a cursory nature, conducted as to the near term or long term impacts, cumulative impacts over time, or the secondary impacts caused by the repeated and long term use of these highly toxic chemicals. Nor has there been any review of the impacts of experimental and federally regulated crops (not approved for human consumption) on the local community’s health and natural environment.
As a former OEQC director, State Senator, and elected member of the Kauai County Council, I am keenly aware of the impact of Syngenta’s activities on my community. We have had incidents of school children getting sick downwind of these fields. We have had massive sea urchin die offs along the coastlines.
I get calls from surfers who can smell the pesticide drift while they sit in the water waiting to catch a wave. I have spoken to fishermen questioning whether or not they should eat the fish, and hunters concerned about eating wild boar who have foraged on the experimental corn. And, I have seen testimony from medical doctors who practice in West Kaua‘i hospitals who are very concerned about the health impacts on their patients, particularly children and infants.
There are many questions and few answers, because there have been no comprehensive environmental studies on these lands, most of which are owned by the State of Hawai‘i.
BLNR cannot make an informed decision about whether Syngenta’s use of public trust lands is harming those lands, waters, or the people around it without knowing how they are using the land, what pesticides they use, how often, how much and where.
No “food farmer” in Hawaii uses anything close to the range and volume of Restricted Use Pesticides that Syngenta does. Regular “food farmers” do not require federal permits to grow regulated crops that are not approved for human consumption or for release into the environment.
Why is the State Department of Health not consulted?
Syngenta is required to provide copies of their federal permits to the State Department of Health (SDOH). But there has been no consultation by the BLNR with SDOH on how experimental Genetically Engineered Crops may impact those habitats and the SDOH is not even listed as a consulting agency.
The BLNR is obligated by both the public trust doctrine enshrined in our constitution, and in HRS343, to require Syngenta to do a full environmental impact statement. BLNR has no basis for approving any Revocable Permit for Syngenta until a complete environmental review has been conducted.
We count on its fidelity to its mission.