Mayor vetoes herbicide measure

  • KIM

Mayor Harry Kim on Thursday exercised his first veto of this term, sending a ban on county herbicide use back to the County Council.

Bill 101, sponsored by Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, would, throughout a four-year period, ban the use of Roundup and 22 other weed killers in parks and alongside roads, bikeways, sidewalks, trails, drainageways and waterways owned or maintained by the county.

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The bill last month passed 6-3, the minimum yes votes to override a veto, under the county charter. The council can have an override vote after five days and within 30 days of the mayor’s action.

The four-page veto letter, sent to Council Chairman Aaron Chung and council members just nine minutes shy of the 4:30 p.m. deadline, lists regulatory concerns about whether it’s the federal, state or local government’s jurisdiction, as well as operational concerns in changing how the county handles weeds.

And it details a series of suggestions that would make the bill acceptable to the administration.

It also takes issue with the lack of definitions in the bill as well as some of the findings.

“The county does not have the level of expertise to identify herbicides as ‘causing high risk of exposure,’ as ‘dangerous chemicals’ or as ‘harmful chemicals,’” the letter states. “The bill disregards the national and state regulations in place to ensure the safety of people who use herbicides as well as those who work and play in areas where herbicides are used.”

Villegas met with the mayor Wednesday and thought she addressed his concerns. She said she provided copies of the bill to the mayor and department chiefs before it was heard by the council and thought she had their buy-in.

“I am not alone in my consternation, and I am baffled, confounded and deeply disappointed with the mayor’s decision to veto Bill 101. However, we are committed to persevere with the courage and serious consideration this bill demands,” Villegas said. “It’s my understanding that it will return to the County Council for a potential veto override. The health of our people, places and future generations depends upon it.”

Kim called the list of 23 banned products “arbitrary.” He also worried about removing some of the county’s tools in battling invasive species and said some of the references to scientific research and federal laws don’t correctly quote the World Health Organization or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Chung, who voted against the measure at its final hearing, said he also had problems with how the 23 herbicides were selected for the ban. Some of them, in fact, are for use on corn and soybeans, which the county doesn’t grow.

The bill doesn’t apply to private property or citizens who maintain land adjacent to county easements or lease agricultural land from the county.

“The fact that the mayor and all his people had the same concerns, it does validate my concerns from the very beginning,” Chung said.

He asked for an explanation early in the discussion of how the products were chosen, but his questions hadn’t been answered by the time it came to take that last vote, he said.

Chung said if it’s his call to have a veto override session, he would do so, since there were six votes in favor.

“Inasmuch as there were enough yes votes to override, I think it would be disingenuous not to move forward,” he said.

At the same time, Kim committed to creating a committee required in the bill to guide county best practices in reducing the use of herbicides in managing vegetation.

“We are committed to the environment and the health and welfare of residents, visitors and wildlife,” Kim said in the letter. “The commitment to work with you on this very important issue to protect the people from exposure to harmful chemicals and doing our job of controlling invasive species is critical and reaffirmed.”

The state Department of Education banned herbicides on its campuses about five years ago.

Proponents of the Hawaii County bill say toxins poison the land and the ocean, imperiling coral reefs and causing cancer and other health problems for people. Opponents worry the ban will be broadened to include private growers and landowners, questioned how it would apply to the Hilo Municipal Golf Course and worried about invasive species.

Testifiers in favor of the bill far outnumbered opponents.

In addition to Chung, Kohala Councilman Tim Richards and Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy voted against the measure.

On Thursday morning, as the 4:30 p.m. deadline loomed for signing or vetoing the bill, Kim was in his office, a marked-up yellow copy of Bill 101 in one hand, notations on how other government agencies handle weeds in the other.

“I’m still working on getting as much information as I can,” Kim said, pointing to a just-arrived report on how the National Park Service handles invasive species at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The half-page report notes that Roundup and other herbicides are used by carefully trained workers.

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“I’m trying to get as much information as I can, good information, and I’m trying to do what’s best for the county,” Kim said at the time.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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