Sugar cane smoke will soon rise again over Maui as the state Department of Health continues its annual practice of approving a permit to burn fields without holding a public hearing, despite persistent requests of opponents who worry the widespread smoke endangers the health of island residents.
It’s been one of the biggest crops on Maui since the late-1800s. However, some residents aren’t happy with the burning that Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., the island’s only remaining sugar plantation, says is necessary to for an economical harvest.
If it’s unable to burn sugar cane, the jobs of its 800 employees could be jeopardized, company officials said.
With the annual burn season approaching, some residents had hoped to have a say in the matter.
From March to November, the company burns about 400 acres of sugar cane weekly, on average torching fields four days per week. Up to a quarter of the plant is leafy material that contains very little sugar, so it is burned off prior to harvest to reduce what needs to be hauled to a factory in Puunene.
Sugar cane can also be harvested without burning, but the company uses this green harvest method only on fields that are rocky, uneven or too close to residential areas to burn. Green harvesting requires different machinery and processing equipment, and two to three times more trips to haul the crop to the factory.
Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. has to apply each year for an agricultural burn permit from the Department of Health, which regulates when and where the company can burn.
DOH rules do not require a public hearing as part of any agricultural permit process, but several Maui residents have asked for one. Kihei resident Brad Edwards said he has been making the request since last December.
“I think they’re leery about having a meeting that is going to be so largely attended and so contentious.” — Irene Bowie, executive director, Maui Tomorrow Foundation
On Feb. 18, the DOH told Edwards that agricultural burn permits must be processed within 90 days; if not, the application is automatically approved. Since public hearings require a 30-day advance notice, it wouldn’t be possible to hold a public hearing because permits are usually granted in early March, he was told.
“The Department of Health is just stonewalling,” Edwards said.
DOH Environmental Health Specialist Lisa Young told Civil Beat the department doesn’t conduct a public hearing because it doesn’t have to.
“I think they’re leery about having a meeting that is going to be so largely attended and so contentious,” said Irene Bowie, executive director of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, an environmental advocacy organization.
Opponents of burning complain that the DOH annually grants burning permits without regard to the effects on Maui’s schools and neighborhoods. The 2015 burn permit was granted Friday.
The DOH notes that it monitors air quality and restricts when burning can occur. It has also levied hefty fines against Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.
In 2011, the company paid $2,400 for torching a field that wasn’t supposed to be burned. In 2012, the company was fined $9,300, this time for permitting harmful dust to become airborne, as well as other permit violations.
DOH officials say cane burning isn’t nearly as harmful as opponents claim.
In 2013, the DOH levied a $1.3 million fine against the company for violations from 2009 to 2013 at its Puunene sugar mill. Most involved excess visible emissions and improper operation of machines designed to contain harmful dust from the boiler stacks. The company uses some of these machines to burn coal, fuel oil and sugar cane residue for energy, which it sells to Maui Electric Co.
Still, DOH officials say cane burning isn’t nearly as harmful as opponents claim. They note that no-burn days can be declared when haze and weather conditions would cause the smoke to stagnate. Opponents say that practice is flawed, and that sometimes the declaration is made hours after nighttime burning is already under way.
The DOH operates two ambient air quality monitoring stations in Kihei and Paia, and is installing a third in Kahului. Because the monitors have detected no violations linked to cane burning, officials at the DOH Clean Air Branch consider it safe.
“If (smoke) does go to our stations we do see it being picked up, but we still meet the ambient air quality standards,” Young said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched an investigation of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. last November. The EPA has requested detailed information concerning the company’s operations in regards to the federal Clean Air Act.
But Kerry Drake, associate director of the Air Division in Region 9 for the EPA, declined to comment on specifics of the investigation, saying, “as long as the standards aren’t violated, EPA has no authority.”
Meanwhile, the results are due soon from an air-quality study that attempts to separate the effects of cane burning from the effects of volcanic haze wafting over Maui from the Big Island.
Resort owner Chuck Spence said the cane burns damage south Maui’s tourism industry.
Spence said he employs one full-time and one-part time worker just to clean up ash that covers his pools and the rest of his property.
“By the time the smoke comes over here it’s so choking and so horrifying, the tourists come running out of their rooms … in fear of their lives thinking that there’s a brush fire heading toward us,” Spence said.
“I got such a bad dose of smoke that I got lung disease,” Karen Chun said.
Chun said that at first she didn’t want to complain about cane burning because she didn’t want to see the cane fields developed. Then she said she was diagnosed with reactive airway disease in 2011. She was living in Kuau Bayview, a Maui subdivision developed by Alexander & Baldwin, at the time.
The subdivision is near sugar cane fields, and when they were burned, Chun said it felt like her “house was on fire.”
Chun’s diagnosis prompted her to start StopCaneBurning.com, and she is far from alone. More than 1,100 complaints about smoke and ash were documented in 2014 through Maui Tomorrow Foundation’s CleanAirMaui phone app. All the complaints show the time, date, photos and videos that are submitted with the posts.
Bowie, the organization’s director, said conditions for cane burning have gotten worse in the last few years. When it’s combined with volcanic smog from Kilauea on the Big Island and a decrease in trade winds, it’s no longer a safe option, she said. She wants the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. to switch to green harvest methods.
“To know that you’re already going to be facing a voggy day, and then there’s burning?” Bowie said. “We watch the plume of smoke go up … and then you see it collapse back down and it spreads low to the ground and everybody is impacted.”
Several teachers complained on the CleanAirMaui app about the effects on children.
Kimmer Spencer, a health aide at Kihei Elementary School, said she’s seen an increase in children with asthma and nosebleeds. Many teachers have to keep all doors and windows closed during the burns, and some children must stay inside during recess.
There is a drawer filled with inhalers in her office, Spencer said.
“Some days you can just open your door when they’re burning and see (smoke) coming in the classroom,” she said. “If there’s big black chunks falling out of the sky, we must be breathing it.”
Spencer has been working at Kihei Elementary for 12 years. When she moved to Maui decades ago, there weren’t as many communities close to the fields.
“It’s just too much for our little island. It just breaks my heart.”
Other residents worry that herbicides sprayed on the crops prior to burning could increase the health risk. They also worry about what happens when irrigation piping and drip systems burn.
Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. says that the majority of herbicides are sprayed months before the sugar cane is burned, so they aren’t a factor in the emissions from the pre-harvest burns. The company also uses other methods of pest management that decrease the need for herbicides or insecticides, said company General Manager Rick Volner, adding that when it comes to irrigation pipes, they try not to burn them to avoid the costs of replacing the irrigation system.
PVC pipes are buried to avoid damage, he said.
About two to three months before harvesting, the company sprays a “light dose of glyphosate” on some of the fields to help increase sugar levels in the stalks, Volner said. Glyphosate is a chemical found in Round Up, Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Co. said.
“We don’t have a cookbook for each field,” Volner said.
DOH officials said the company doesn’t violate national air quality guidelines with its burning, but sometimes irrigation pipes are broken or burned by accident.
Volner said the company often chooses not to burn fields when the smoke would most affect Maui residents, even if a no-burning day has not been declared.
“We recognize that smoke in any form is harmful … I also don’t think were getting as much credit as we should,” Volner said.
“HC&S does try to assess where the sensitive populations are,” DOH Clean Air Branch Director Nolan Hirai said. “They’re very aware of the concerns and issues.”
Although there haven’t been any violations detected by the monitoring stations, the EPA’s Drake says that direct exposure to any smoke can be harmful to some people.
“It’s just like anything else, if you’re a kid with asthma and your dad’s a smoker, that could set you into a bad situation,” Drake said. “Everybody knows that there could be health impacts of smoke.”
State Sen. Rosalyn Baker, who represents south and west Maui, told Civil Beat that she understands Maui residents’ frustrations, but she also values the jobs that Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. provides. She says that she tries to find a balance on the issue.
In areas where sugar cane is no longer grown, “I think people would welcome (the plantations) back … and put up with the periodic dust and ash,” Baker said.
As for green harvesting of sugar cane, Baker said the labor is so hard that no one would want to do it.
“I don’t know if you did that kind of green harvest that you’d get any takers,” she said. “You’ve got to be practical.”
Baker said many opponents of sugar cane burning are new to Maui and aren’t in touch with the local community.
“I think it’s a different attitude of the kind of people that are showing up on Maui. They’re maybe not as engaged with the local community,” Baker said. “Some folks in the community will not be happy unless HC&S will go out of business.”
Opponents reached by Civil Beat said they would be happy if Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. would grow crops that don’t have to be burned. They said burning has gone on so long because of the power of Alexander & Baldwin, one of the largest land developers in the state and the owner of the sugar company.
“I think it’s the whole history of how much power A&B has wielded over the years … and the money that they have put into numerous political campaigns,” said Bowie.
In the last two years, Baker has received $3,700 from Alexander & Baldwin, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. and their employees.
“The political contributions have a lot to do with what happens in the state,” said Terez Amato, a Kihei resident who ran against Baker in 2014. “No one wants to touch this hot button issue.”
“We have written letters to politicians … asking them to change the law,” said Chuck Spence, owner of the Maui Sunseeker LGBT Resort in North Kihei said. “There’s so many people here that are suffering from (the sugar cane burns).”
State Rep. Kaniela Ing, who represents Kihei, Wailea and Makena, has been sympathetic to burning opponents. He received $500 from Alexander & Baldwin over the last two years.
The Maui-born Ing said cane burning has been one of biggest concerns that his constituents have brought up since he took office in 2012. He thinks burning has persisted due to fears of losing jobs and agricultural land.
“I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the plantations,” Ing said. “But these health complaints and clean air complaints need to be taken care of by the Department of Health.”
Ing said some Maui residents are demanding a “paradigm shift,” with industrial farming replaced by sustainable, small-scale farms and biofuel crops. But he worries that Maui residents forget that Alexander & Baldwin is a land developer.
“HC&S and the community members all want to see Maui’s valley remain green,” Ing said. “And that’s not necessarily the case of HC&S’ parent company.”
Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. operates on 36,000 acres in Central Maui. In 1948, it merged with Maui Sugar Plantation when it was purchased by Alexander & Baldwin, becoming the largest sugar plantation in the country. Since then, Alexander & Baldwin has diversified into real estate development, natural materials and infrastructure construction and has about $2.3 billion in assets.
Officials at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. said they’d like to switch from sugar cane to a more valuable biofuel crop, but it’s not economical to make the change now.
“We’ve always been looking at alternatives,” said Volner.
“I do believe they’ve honestly been trying to find an alternative crop,” Ing said. “I think there’s legislative ways … that we could help ease the transition.”
A recent study by the DOH’s Maui branch and the University of Hawaii at Hilo College of Pharmacy could shed light on the health problems caused by cane burning. The study has not been published yet, so DOH officials declined to comment on the results.
Separating the symptoms caused by cane burning and vog prevented researchers from studying the effect of cane burning in the past, said Dr. Lorrin Pang of DOH-Maui. There are harmful respiratory effects caused by vog and smoke, so researchers at the EPA and DOH said it would be nearly impossible to study the effects of cane burning by itself.
“Even without knowing the results of the study, it was very controversial as to whether the study could be done,” said Pang, who added he thinks that he has figured out a way to differentiate between the two air pollutants.
Historically, the EPA and the DOH have been too relaxed when it comes to setting air quality guidelines, Pang said.
“We’re not here to blindly obey rules and guidelines,” Pang said. “We set guidelines based on evidence, and I believe we have evidence.”
When he started the study two years ago, he had the full support of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. But now that the study is about to be released, the company said it doesn’t support the methodology behind it, Pang said.
A 2006 study by researchers in Brazil linked cane burning to hospital visits caused by respiratory diseases. The study found that hospitalizations of children and the elderly increased more than 20 percent during burn periods.
Maui County has the second-highest rate of childhood asthma in the state, behind Hawaii County.
Note: Lisa Young at the Department of Health says people can submit comments and concerns regarding cane burning to the Clean Air Branch at Cab.General@doh.hawaii.gov.