BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Hawaii Reporter produced a series of investigative reports over the last three years related problems involving pesticide and working conditions at Oahu farms, which led to investigations by a number of state and federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Labor and the state Department of Agriculture.
The investigation exposed a black market pesticide operation, which distributes regulated pesticides to farmers on Oahu who cannot get – or do not have – proper licensing, for an estimated three times the price.
The farm workers, including many illegal immigrants who appointed as “sprayers”, get sick and have even died as a result of repeated, excessive exposure to this pesticide.
Several of the workers on Oahu farms who spoke through translators, cannot read product labels and warnings because they are written in English, so they may not mix or spray the pesticide safely.
Workers said they are not given protective gear and don’t have the proper training to apply pesticide safely on the fruits and vegetables they grow – fruits and vegetables that show up in Hawaii’s farmers’ markets and grocery stores, and also are shipped overseas.
Hawaii Attorney Clare Hanusz said she has heard reports of unapproved pesticides being used for years on dozens of farms throughout the islands.
However, state investigators told Hawaii Reporter they don’t have enough manpower to check every farm on a frequent basis.
State Senators are addressing the manpower issue through Senate Bill 2110, which appropriates $555,000 from the pesticide use revolving fund to facilitate increased pesticide regulation.
The bill aims to boost funding in the Department of Agriculture so additional inspectors can be hired in 2014 and 2015.
State inspectors have had some success identifying illegal pesticide use on Oahu farms.
In 2012, Fat Law Farm, which deems itself “The King of Basil” in Hawaii, was ordered by the state Department of Health to destroy its entire basil crop – all 29 acres – because it used an unapproved pesticide. Through spot testing, state investigators found the farm was using the pesticide methomyl at two of its farm properties. Methomyl is toxic to humans and for that reason was unapproved for use on some foods.
Gary Gill, a state Department of Health spokesman, confirmed in 2012 after the basil bust, that the sale and use of pesticides are strictly regulated because they are dangerous to the applicator in concentrated form if not used properly.
Gill said applicators must have training, and wear proper gear while they are spraying, or it could have a potential negative health impact. Improper use can also have a negative impact on consumers, he said.
The Law family is well known in the farming community. In addition to Fat Law, Tommy Law and Tony Law, brothers to Frank and Tim, run farms on Oahu. The family is originally from Laos, and started farming in Hawaii in 1986.
In 2011 and 2012, Hawaii Reporter produced a series of investigative reports related problems involving pesticide and working conditions at both Tony and Tommy Laws’ farms.
The problems came to light at Tony Law’s farm through Alay Tansili, 46, after he was hospitalized.
Alay said from his hospital bed that he worked for Tony Law 7 days a week for $1,500 a month as a farm laborer and lived at his farm in a makeshift plywood shack with no plumbing or electricity and no furniture except for his cot. He suffered a severe and debilitating stroke in December 2011 and was hospitalized at Castle Memorial Center.
Alay said he had many bad reactions after mixing and spraying chemicals on the crops and burning the chemical containers as he was directed. After handling hazardous chemicals without training or protection for as many as three days a week for at least four years, he collapsed. Alay was here living and working illegally, had no health insurance and needed considerable rehabilitation in order to walk again.
Alay’s friend, Khamfanh Keohavong, who was also here from Laos living in Hawaii illegally, said he worked on Tony Law’s farm with Alay for four years before quitting for similar reasons. Khamfanh told Hawaii Reporter he collapsed several times after spraying the same chemicals that hurt Alay. A doctor at Queen’s Medical Center told Khamfanh in front of a Hawaii Reporter staffer, the chemical exposure may have caused Khamfanh to develop a brain tumor.
Immigration attorneys Clare Hanuz and Melissa Vincenty learned more about Tony Law’s farm after Alay fell ill. Vincenty, who visited the farm on Oahu’s North Shore, said Alay and Khamfanh have worked under “terrible conditions” and they were sickened after spraying chemicals several days a week over a period of years. While Khamfanh experienced blackouts and numbness is his limbs, Alay suffered from rashes, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, numbness in his arms and legs and the loss of his sense of taste.
Tony Law told Hawaii Reporter Alay was just his friend, and only he mixed and sprayed chemicals on his own produce.
Even though doctors had already told Law that Alay could not be released, Tony Law came to pick up Alay at the hospital. When confronted by Hawaii Reporter in December, Tony Law said he wanted Alay to go home to Laos to be with his family. He brought two other men with him to the hospital and without permission of the staff or doctor, took Alay out of his room in a hospital wheel chair toward the elevator twice on a Saturday morning that month. Vincenty said the first time a nurse stopped Law, and the second time, Alay’s friends who came to visit stopped Law and told him Alay could not leave the hospital, much less Hawaii.
Law denies he was trying to sneak Alay off the hospital grounds and said he was only trying to give Alay a break from being in his small room.
Tony Law did send Alay back to Laos in 2012. Through a Hawaii Reporter translator, Alay disclosed Tony Law paid him $2,000 in cash and bought him a plane ticket to encourage him to go home.
Hawaii Reporter learned through sources in Laos that a few months after returning to Laos, Alay died.
Khamfanh said he is back in Laos still suffering from the effects of overexposure to pesticide.
In another case involving the Law brothers, Toune Tipphavanh, a 51-year old Laotian farm laborer who worked on brother Tommy Law’s farm, became ill at work and died shortly afterward. Hawaii Reporter’s Jim Dooley attended a cremation ceremony held for her in early November 2011.
Friends said Toune was not taken to a doctor for several years despite a known heart condition. Her husband, who traveled here with her in 2006, returned home to bring their children the sad news.
Hanusz confirmed, “We have reported conditions of workers using dangerous chemicals without proper training or protections, and know of Laotian workers who have gotten seriously ill and even died likely due to pesticide exposure.”