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DBCP Poisoned Water Wells in Hawaii, US


Dibromochloropropane, or DBCP, is a pesticide introduced by the Dow Chemical Company and Shell Development Company in 1955 in order to control nematodes, or root worms, at the base of pineapple plants. However, by 1984, when DBCP was finally phased out in Hawai`i, it would cause damage to more than just nematodes. Although DBCP was initially thought to dissolve in soil, it instead percolated into the groundwater, and contaminated the drinking water supply in Hawai`i [2;5]. DBCP is in the persistent organic pollutants class of pesticides, which remain in the environment for long periods of time and can be harmful to human health [7]. By 1977, DBCP was known to be harmful, and was banned in California after it was discovered to cause cancers in test animals, and that workers exposed to DBCP were experiencing infertility [5]. DBCP has also been linked to kidney and liver damage, infertility and potentially cancer [7].

Since 1979, DBCP has been found in groundwater in Arizona, California, Maryland, South Carolina and Hawai`i [1]. As a result, the EPA in May 1979 asked all of these states to test their water supplies and phase out the use of DBCP in the next 2 years [1]. The owners of pineapple plantations in Hawai`i asked the EPA to make an exception and allow them to keep using DBCP. An agreement signed on March 6, 1981 allowed Hawai`i pineapple plantations to continue to used DBCP even when it was banned in every other state [3;4;5]. EPA Administrator Douglas Costle agreed to this exception as he believed the economic benefit to the Hawaiian pineapple growers exceeded the risks to the Hawaiian people [5]. Unfortunately, this is part of a larger pattern of injustice, where the land and people of Hawai`i are treated differently than those on the mainland, where profits are put over people. Hawai`i also has ten times as much pesticides and herbicides per square mile than any other state [4].

As a condition of the agreement, the state had to conduct extensive water testing. Workers were also now required to wear full body protective gear when in the pineapple fields [5]. In September, 1982, DBCP was found in Mililani well  at a concentration of 97 nanograms per liter [3].

After a second round of testing required by the EPA, 8 wells were found to be contaminated, creating a water crisis in Hawai`i [3]. In Oahu, ten water wells were closed by the Hawai`i State Department of Health because of DBCP contamination in 1982 and 1983, with contamination ranging from 0.26 ppb to 2.23 ppb [5]. The Del Monte Kunia Well on Oahu had concentrations from 500 to 1100 nanograms per liter [1]. Hawaii’s most important aquifer, the Pearl Harbor Aquifer, also showed detectable levels of DBCP, a major concern as Honolulu’s main supplier of drinking water [1]. The Department of Health soon set a maximum contaminant standard of 0.02 ppb, or 20 nanograms per liter [3].

In January, 1985, the Honolulu Star Bulletin reported that DBCP had been found in milk, and that state officials, consultants from the University of Hawaii and the pineapple industry had made attempts to suppress this discovery [4] - another stark example of putting profits over people. In addition, only a year after the Maliko spring was determined to be contaminated, the people who used the water were finally informed [5]. David Williams, the agricultural researcher for ML&P, who was responsible for the testing, said the residents weren’t informed because “We can’t go around looking for every backwoods person who doesn’t know what they are talking about. I tell you nobody drinks that water” [5]. Williams used coded racist terms, such as “backwoods person,” to excuse his decisions.

Also in January 1985, the EPA ordered ML&P to stop the use of DBCP within the next 2 years, and added the requirement that any use of DBCP would need to be approved by a two member panel (of an EPA and state representative). In February, ML&P asked for approval to use DBCP on 2100 acres, which would not only use up ML&P’s remaining stocks of DBCP, but also all the remaining DBCP on the mainland [5]. ML&P argued that this was the most environmentally safe way to dispose of DBCP, while local residents argued that this was yet another example of using Hawai`i as a dumping ground for the mainland [5]. In mid-April, ML&P’s request was denied, and in June, 1987, ML&P shipped out its last stocks of DBCP to be disposed.

Despite DBCP use ending at the end of 1984, DBCP was found in a well at Napili in 1992 at a concentration of 100 parts per trillion, and later at 360 parts per trillion – ten times the state maximum [5]. As a result, Maui County filed a lawsuit against the manufacturers of DBCP: Shell, Dow, Occidental, Amvac and Brewer Environmental Industry Incorporated [5].

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply ended up spending $9 million to remediate the DBCP contaminated wells in Kunia and Waipahu [3]. Recent simulations show that it takes 14-32 years for DBCP to reach the water table, and that wells will likely not recover until after 2016 [8].

DBCP is still being found decades later. In 2003, testing of contaminated wells in Maui still showed high levels of DBCP at 230 ppt, about 190 ppt higher than the max contaminant level allowed in Hawai`i [7]. Traces of DBCP was found in the Haiku water system in December 2019, but at levels below state safe drinking water standards [9]. Traces of DBCP were also found in water samples in Waipahu, Ewa and Waianae in 2018, but also at levels below safe drinking water standards [10]. 

After completely banned in the US, DBCP was used as a pesticide in banana plantations in Central America, Ecuador, Africa and The Philippines where thousands of workers have reported reduced fertility and lower sperm counts.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:DBCP Poisoned Water Wells in Hawaii, US
Country:United States of America
State or province:O`ahu, Maui, Moloka`i, and Lana`i.
Location of conflict:Hawaii
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Intensive food production (monoculture and livestock)
Specific commodities:Pesticides
Fruits and Vegetables

Project Details and Actors

Project details

-According to 1978 testimony to the EPA from the Pineapple Growers Association of Hawai`i, a ban on DBCP would reduce the yield of their crop by $4 million.

-An agreement signed on March 6, 1981 allowed Hawai`i pineapple plantations to continue to used DBCP even when it was banned in every other state [3][4][5]

-DBCP is a persistent organic pollutant (POPs) which are toxic chemicals that adversely affect human health and the environment around the world. Because they can be transported by wind and water, most POPs generated in one country can and do affect people and wildlife far from where they are used and released [7]

-In Oahu, ten water wells were closed by the Hawai`i State Department of Health because of DBCP contamination in 1982 and 1983, with contamination ranging from 0.26 ppb to 2.23 ppb [5].

-In June, 1987, ML&P shipped out its last stocks of DBCP to be disposed.

Type of populationRural
Affected Population:unknown
Start of the conflict:1959
End of the conflict:1986
Company names or state enterprises:Maui Land & Pine from United States of America
Dole Fruit Company from United States of America
Del Monte from United States of America
Relevant government actors:Environmental Protection Agency; Department of Agriculture; Pineapple Research Institute (PRI); Hawaii State Department of Health; Honolulu Board of Water Supply
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Supporters: University of Hawai`i Water Resource Research Center;

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Neighbours/citizens/communities
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Soil contamination, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Other Health impacts
Other Health impacts kidney and liver damage, infertility, testicular atrophy, and potentially cancer.
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Violations of human rights
Potential: Displacement


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Project cancelled
contaminated wells removed from service; carbon filters to clean up water supply;
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:The use of DBCP ended in 1984. It remained in the soil and groundwater of Hawai'i for decades, but as of 2018, has only been detected at levels below 0.04 parts per billion, the maximum contamination standard set by the state of Hawaii.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

[11] In Hawaiʻi, Plantation Tourism Tastes Like Pineapple

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[2] Bartholomew, Duane P., Richard A. Hawkins, and Johnny A. Lopez. "Hawaii pineapple: the rise and fall of an industry." HortScience 47, no. 10 (2012): 1390-1398.

[1] Oki, Delwyn S., and Thomas W. Giambelluca. "DBCP, EDB, and TCP contamination of ground water in Hawaii." Groundwater 25, no. 6 (1987): 693-702.

[8] Clark, Heather A., and Suzanne M. Snedeker. "Critical evaluation of the cancer risk of dibromochloropropane (DBCP)." Journal of Environmental Science and Health Part C 23, no. 2 (2005): 215-260.

[3] In Midst of '83 Water Crisis, State Rises to Defense of Growers. (1996).

[4] Merwin, W.S. "Hawaii Wakes Up To Pesticides." The Nation. (1985).

[6] DBCP and Dole, 30 Years Later

[5] Pineapple's Lasting Legacy: The Poisoned Wells of Maui

[7] Pineapple, Water, and Pesticides–Not the Most Ideal Cocktail

[10] "Trace levels of a chemical detected in west Oahu water well." Hawaii News Now. (2018).

[9] Imada, Lee. "Trace amounts of soil fumigants found in private Haiku water system." The Maui News. (2019).

Other comments:“Present evidence does not indicate that DBCP contamination of drinking water in Hawai`i is likely to present a significant risk to public health… I find that the economic benefit to Hawaiian pineapple growers outweighs the remaining risks associated with the use of DBCP.” EPA Administrator Douglas Costle.

Meta information

Contributor:Arielle Landau, BOLD Fellow at the EJ Atlas and Grettel Navas (ENVJustice Project)
Last update13/10/2021



Advertisement of Pineapples in Hawaii

Source: Stuart Woodfin. Retrieved from: