Rob Parsons

Slow Burn

Community discontent smolders over continued HC&S cane burning

by Rob Parsons

July 2, 2009

Where there's smoke, there's poor air quality

It happens with regularity: a smoked-out resident pens a letter to the local newspaper, chastising Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) for persisting with the archaic practice of burning sugar cane fields before harvesting. The writer cites air quality degradation and health risks, lack of regulatory oversight, messy black ash or “Hawaiian snow,” and calls for alternatives, such as growing food for local consumption.

Then the fun begins. Inevitably, other letter-writers quickly come to the defense of the plantation, with a nostalgic posture that often defies reason. Sugar may not be perfect, they opine, but it provides jobs and keeps Central Maui green. Make HC&S stop burning, the authors say, and they’ll go under. Then the isthmus will revert to a dustbowl, or worse yet, it will all become urbanized.

Finally, someone will take the debate to the lowest common denominator: thinly veiled racism or provincialism. “How dare you newcomers tell us how to live our lives? If you didn’t like cane burning, why did you move here? And maybe you should move back.”

Twelve years ago this month, in 1997, Kihei resident Susan Douglas wrote a letter to the editor concerning cane burning, and left her voicemail number. Over 50 people called wanting to do something about the situation, and the Maui Clean Air Coalition (MCAC) was born. Meetings were held; more than 250 people showed up at a public hearing in Kihei attended by a representative from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 9 San Francisco office. 

The coalition engaged the plantation in discussions about viable harvesting alternatives. At the same time, they formed a legal committee to study the possibility of a class action lawsuit. 

The MCAC went so far as contacting Tilby, a Canadian company with patented equipment for cane harvesting and processing. Tilby proposed, at their own cost, building a separate tower adjacent to the existing Puunene Mill with equipment to separate sugar chaff from the cane stalk, and to manufacture ethanol and fiberboard. They hoped the county would agree to run its fleet of vehicles with the locally produced biofuel. But the proposal fizzled and faded away, and in time, so did the momentum of the MCAC.

Fast forward to three weeks ago, when an Upcountry resident created a Facebook group called Maui Clean Air. The forum is “dedicated to actively exploring, researching, educating, and empowering the Maui community to clean up our air.” The site has swiftly grown to nearly 300 members and comments have been posted detailing communications with state Department of Health and EPA representatives, as well as listing research on pollutants found in cane burning residue.

And thus, a new round of letters has been launched on The Maui News opinion page. A Kula resident attributed asthma problems to Madame Pele and worsening vog from Kilauea’s vents. A Wailuku resident stated that sugar has kept the valley green and “prevented the dust storms that would rage through it.”

There is no doubt that air quality throughout the islands has suffered in recent years due to emissions from the Big Island volcano. But shouldn’t that be all the more reason to find alternatives to open field burning? Maui Electric Company (MECO) power plants in Kahului and Maalaea were 6th and 9th, respectively, on the state list for top producers of harmful emissions, according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory. (A cursory search did not turn up where HC&S’s Puunene Mill landed on the emissions list for 2008. The EPA tracks and regulates point source emissions, but not those from open field burning. There is only one air quality monitoring site on Maui, in Kihei, and data is averaged over a 24-hour period, meaning extreme conditions from burning dissipate and don’t trigger air quality violations.)

Kihei’s Dr. Lee Altenberg, a UH associate professor and native plant enthusiast, refuted the Central Maui dust bowl myth more than a decade ago. Responding to misinformation in The Maui News, Altenberg wrote: “Harry Eagar’s usually informative column, Off Deadline, was full of errors Dec. 31 [1997] when confronting the issue of sugar growing in Maui’s central valley. He spreads the fallacy that Maui’s central valley was “naturally” a wasteland before sugar cultivation. The natural state of the valley was a thick dryland forest. In this forest, giant flightless ducks, nene and other birds roamed among trees that grew nowhere else in the world. Eagar compares the valley to the Arizona desert. Find me one town in Arizona named for flocks of geese that lived there, as Pu‘u Nene is named. The Polynesians reduced this forest to a grassland by recurrent burning as a means to cultivate grass for thatches. But it was cattle that turned the valley into a dust bowl. Beginning in 1793, for a whole generation cattle were let loose to run over Maui. Cattle, pigs, goats and deer turned virtually all of Hawaii’s dryland forest areas into dust. A Natural History of the Hawaiian Islands, edited by E.A. Kay (available in area bookstores), gives abundant details.”

The perpetuation of the idea that only sugar can keep the central valley green ignores the potential for myriad food or fuel crops that might serve the same purpose, while using far less water than sugar cane. It also overlooks the plantation’s practice of clearing hundreds of acres at a time, leaving topsoil vulnerable to Maui’s strong trade winds and producing regional dust storms. 

In 1994, Pukalani resident Herb Squires helped convene an effort to end cane burning, bringing various stakeholders together for the Alternatives to the Burning of Sugar Cane Committee. Meeting regularly over the better part of a year, the ad hoc group included representatives from the County Council, A&B, HC&S, ILWU, MECO and the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association (back before plantation operations such as Pioneer Mill and Hamakua Sugar went belly-up).

The committee’s final recommendation was to acquire machinery to strip the leaves of harvested cane, at a projected cost of $2 million dollars. HC&S went so far as to work on blueprints, while Squires pursued grant funding to help defray the cost. But ultimately, the idea went nowhere.

I met with then-plantation manager Steve Holaday in early 2003, and he related that equipment cost estimates for green-harvesting cane were $30 million. Two years later, we met again, this time with MCAC’s Douglas and a Wailea resident who was concerned with the deleterious health impacts on his family. 

Holaday told us they had crunched the numbers and believed the cost to retrofit their operation would be a whopping $101 million. Whether those projected costs were realistic or not, I understood that HC&S had no intentions of budging on the issue anytime soon.

Late in 2005, the topic hit the headlines again when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Air Quality Task Force heard public testimony as part of an 11-hour meeting at the Renaissance Wailea Beach Resort. The USDA task force was familiar with agricultural burning in places like Idaho and Washington, done to discourage plant disease and vermin, but those burns are generally conducted just once a year—as opposed to HC&S, which burns Monday through Saturday, February through December, weather permitting.

The Maui News reported comments I made to the panel, relaying dozens of concerns and complaints registered with my office as Maui County Environmental Coordinator and executive assistant to Mayor Alan Arakawa, and those of other testifiers. Once again, the debate raged on the letters page, with patience wearing thin for many.

Soon, like a school kid summoned to the principal’s office for chewing gum in class, I was asked to address the issue at the Maui County Farm Bureau’s monthly meeting with the Mayor. I sat back and listened to the “concern” they had that I had spoken out on the matter. 

I responded by reading a Honolulu Advertiser commentary that advocated self-reliance in food and fuel. “There are few places more vulnerable right now than Hawaii,” the article stated, with billions of dollars leaving the state to import both commodities. “Hawaii has the opportunity,” the piece continued, “to turn two of our biggest challenges—fuel and food—into two of our biggest economic successes.”

Mayor Arakawa, while not stating opposition to cane burning, did come to my defense. “You have a situation with a conflict between the environment and the economy,” he said. “This issue needs work. If you don’t address it, it’s likely to get worse.”

Vilifying HC&S for their reluctance to change is likely to strain the bonds of already divided contingencies in our community. Instead, it may be most productive to pursue viable economic and agricultural options—not only to cane burning, but to the mono-cropping of some 35,000 acres, which requires more and more pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers.

Diversified, locally focused agriculture would also provide many more jobs than sugar, which only employs about one person per 45 acres. On top of that, A&B’s agricultural sector lost nearly $13 million last year, so surely corporate executives must see the handwriting on the wall.

What if A&B provided regional plots for community gardens, as Maui Land & Pineapple did in 2006 with two acres adjacent to Haliimaile? Perhaps they could engage the community in a planning charette for a new agricultural future, similar to when they sought input on a proposed new community in the Waiale Road area near Waikapu.

Long-term decisions for Maui are often made in A&B’s corporate boardrooms in Honolulu, and haven’t generally met with community approval. How refreshing it would be to see them step into a new paradigm of community-based planning, and to collaborate on strategies to mutually benefit Maui’s agricultural viability and the local economy. 

Hey A&B execs, are you on Facebook?