The DuPont Pioneer staff “were constantly cutting corners and not following the law [regarding pesticide use], not just best practices,” Valenzuela told me later. “They followed very tight schedules, and if the schedule called for spraying a field at such-and-such-a-time, they did it, regardless of where the wind was blowing. Their own guys were saying in memos there were improper [pesticide application] practices. I thought the county would sue, but they didn’t.”

A spokesperson for DowDuPont’s agriculture division (now renamed Corteva Agricience), Gregg Schmidt, did not respond to several requests for comment.

As the Waimea residents’ suit was proceeding, in 2013 and 2014, activists sidestepped what they saw as the tight hold the companies had over the legislature and persuaded the Kauai and Big Island county councils to pass laws restricting the companies’ pesticide spraying operations — variously requiring the detailed disclosure of pesticides used and the creation of buffer zones. In Maui and Moloka‘i county voters narrowly passed a bitterly fought referendum calling for a moratorium on GMO crops until an environmental assessment was done. All three actions were eventually overturned in 2016 by a federal court, which found that only the state and not the counties could regulate the companies.

hawaii gmo protest march
Despite widespread protests between 2012 and 2014, and repeated requests by citizens and activists, Hawaii did not conduct a comprehensive study on the adverse health effects on people who live near the GMO farms. Photo by Christopher Pala.

In Honolulu, physician Josh Green, then a state senator, drafted legislation in 2015 to mandate some prior disclosure and some buffer zones, but it wasn’t even brought up for a vote in the agriculture committee, let alone the full legislature.

That same year, the state agriculture department and Kauai County appointed a joint fact-finding commission to examine claims that pesticides were making people sick. The commission found no studies proving such a link — because none had been carried out. But it did uncover some disturbing correlations.

One of the physicians on the panel, Douglas Wilmore, a surgeon and professor emeritus at the Harvard Medical School, found that the 2008-2013 rate of cancer deaths per 100,000 people was 175 in Waimea, near the fields, and about 125 in Hanalei, on the other side of the mountainous island, where there are no cornfields.

A statewide study of a birth defect called gastroschisis found rates of 5.8 to 6.7 cases per 10,000 live births versus 2 to 4.9 nationally.

No such discrepancy existed for heart disease, which, unlike cancer, is not associated with pesticide use. The state health department did not follow up.

Two years later, in 2017, a statewide study of a birth defect called gastroschisis (GS) — in which a baby is born with its organs outside its abdomen — found rates of 5.8 to 6.7 cases per 10,000 live births versus 2 to 4.9 nationally. The study, published in the journal Pediatric Surgery International, reported that in Hawai‘i, “85.9 percent of patients shared zip codes” with restricted use pesticide [RUP] areas.

“Hawai‘i is a state where RUPs are used liberally and with few restrictions, yet it is nearly impossible to study possible links between these birth defects and RUPs,” the study’s authors wrote in the paper. “Current governmental or industry data on RUP use are inadequate, making correlation and accurate study of GS and RUP exposure difficult and limited.”

After the county-level legislations were overturned, activists from different islands focused on the state legislature. Coincidentally, Richard Creagan, a physician, became the House agriculture committee chair. With his support and that of Green, both chambers unanimously passed a bill in May 2018 that requires the companies to set up buffer zones around schools and not spray RUPs within 100 feet (30 meters) of them during school hours. It also requires companies to disclose, from 2020 on, what restricted use pesticides they spray, and bans the use of chlorpyrifos, a particularly common and toxic insecticide, by 2022.

Last year, Green was elected lieutenant governor of Hawai‘i. “This matter has to be resolved completely so that the next generation doesn’t grow up having been exposed to a cloud of pesticides,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Journal. “This will be more likely when the chemical companies leave Hawai‘i for different pastures.”

Green is apparently contemplating running for governor in 2022.

IN THE MEANTIME, HAVE the companies started more closely following practices to prevent drift, such as growing corn farther away from homes, buildings, and roads?

Valenzuela, the University of Hawai‘i agronomist, reviewed the drone footage of Bayer-Monsanto’s Maui farm and noted that the company had not planted hedge lines between separate fields that could have mitigated drift. Observing that perhaps a third of the fields were bare, he said: “That’s not good. To keep a field bare and ready to plant, you have to keep spraying it with herbicides.” The herbicides at application not only move with the wind as clouds but also permeate the loose topsoil, and later gusts of wind will carry chemical-laden dust into homes, he says.

The fields are likely being sprayed with any of the 17 restricted-use pesticides that the companies acknowledge using in Maui, he said. Thus, he said, it would be appropriate to set up monitoring stations next to the houses to test how much pesticides reach them.

Bayer’s spokesperson Charla Lord, when told of these complaints and asked why Bayer didn’t move its fields under active cultivation farther away from Kamalani, replied that “anyone with questions about the stewardship, the safety practices, or the 50-year history of our Mokulele farm [may] contact us directly.” (In response to the October suit, the company put out a statement saying it was “confident that pesticide use on our Maui farms did not cause the health claims described in the lawsuit.”)

Asked whether Alexander & Baldwin was aware of Kamalani residents’ complaints and whether the company had installed air-monitoring stations on the property to ensure its residents were safe, company spokesperson Darren Pai evaded the question, saying that ensuring legal and safe pesticide use was the agriculture department’s responsibility. His company, he added, “is not aware of any evidence that indicates any issue with pesticide drift from Monsanto’s farm into Kamalani.” Pai did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit by Max Coleman and Dana Fulton’s families.

Over in Kauai, according to Hooser and Valenzuela, Corteva hasn’t been growing corn in the fields in Waimea that were closest to the school that was evacuated twice. Hooser, a Kauai resident, calls that progress, though he points out that most other fields lie behind hedges and fences. “Whether they’re hiding or reducing their activities, I do not know,” he says. Valenzuela agrees that the company’s activities are opaque.

One night in January 2019, I came across what might be a possible answer a few miles north of Waimea, where a series of GM cornfields lie along a two-mile stretch of Hawai‘i Route 50, a well-traveled road that contours Kauai’s west coast. A giant tractor appeared in a blaze of lights from the field, 150 feet from the road, straddling four rows of four-feet-tall corn. It stopped for a few minutes at the edge of the field facing the road, which is unprotected by any hedge, and then pivoted into the adjoining field. From its illuminated, hanging nozzles, a thick white spray soaked the glistening, deep-green leaves (see opening photo). Soon the tractor vanished into the rows of corn, where each stalk bore a paper tag — the sign of an experimental crop. The wind was blowing softly from the east, obliquely across the road, where most cars that drove by had their windows open in the evening coolness.

The fields are owned and operated by Hartung Brothers of Wisconsin, which is working as a contractor for ChemChina-Syngenta. (The state-owned ChemChina bought Syngenta in 2017 for $43 billion.)

In pesticides, it is said that the label is the law. The label is actually a list of warnings and instructions, which can run dozens of pages, on how to use the product to minimize harm and maximize efficiency.

Anyone found guilty of not following the instructions, says the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, “shall be fined not more than $25,000 or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.”

wind speed illustration
Hartung claimed the wind was blowing at 2.1 mph away from the road and toward the east when the spraying occurred and included this image to illustrate their point. But the documents they sent also included 11 pages of wind data from the Chico, California, Western Weather Group showing the wind was blowing consistently from the east and toward the road for the day and time of the observation as well as for the days before and after.

Asked whether the spraying I’d observed in the Waimea field had violated the law, the state agriculture department sent an investigator over. According to documents provided by the Hartung Brothers to the investigator and made available by the agriculture department to the Journal, the pesticide sprayed that night was Methoxyfenozide sold as Intrepid 2F — an endocrine disruptor targeted at butterflies and moths. Its label, last revised in 2017, says it is “Harmful if absorbed through skin or inhaled…. Avoid breathing spray mist.” It adds, “To avoid drift … make ground applications when the wind speed favors on-target product depositions (3 to 10 mph).”

The investigator reported that the person who was doing the spraying, whose name was blacked out in the report, said the wind was blowing at 2.1 mph away from the road and toward the east — an unusual statement since wind direction is generally defined by its origin, not its destination. (Hawai‘i’s trade winds almost always blow from the northeast.) The documents included a map and an arrow also showing the wind was blowing toward the east, away from the road. But the document also included 11 pages of wind data from the Chico, California, Western Weather Group showing the wind was blowing consistently from the east and toward the road for the day and time of the observation as well as for the days before and after.

After the inconsistency was pointed out to John McHugh, head of the agriculture department’s pesticides branch, a second report was made available. The investigator wrote that she returned to the company and “documented” that “the wind direction ... was read incorrectly,” with no explanation as to why. She confirmed the applicator found the windspeed to be 2 mph, which is outside the legal threshold. The document concluded, “Violations: none. Enforcement actions: none.”

Asked if the company had instructed the operator to lie about the wind direction, Hartung’s general manager for Hawai‘i operations, Joshua Uyehara, said.: “No one was instructed to provide incorrect information to the HDOA inspector.”

Asked how it was possible that an experienced investigator would not have noticed the discrepancy, which also apparently escaped the attention of the Attorney General’s office (it reviewed the case), McHugh replied: “We have determined that the applicator … made an honest mistake … While it may have created a confusing inspection report, there was no intention, on the part of the applicator, to deceive our inspector.”

“This is what we always get from the state — incompetence rising to the level of gross negligence,” says Hooser, the state senator turned activist. “And the companies have a pattern of showing a complete disregard for public safety and health.”