KAHULUI - In response to public concern over cane burning, the state Department of Health recently revised its agricultural burn permit requirements to provide more clarity and enforceability and has brought back an air quality monitoring station in Paia, a state health official said Wednesday night.
Gary Gill, deputy director of the state Department of Health's Environmental Health Administration, said he "cannot ban cane burning"; it is the state Legislature that makes the laws. His department can keep an eye on agricultural burning and make sure that no one entity burns on "no burn days," generally declared when there is widespread haze over an island, and that those who burn meet permit requirements.
"It's very closely monitored," Gill said.
He spoke to at least two groups of Maui residents Wednesday evening at Gov. Neil Abercrombie's "Cabinet in Your Community" discussions at the University of Hawaii Maui College in Kahului.
Gill was one of the nearly a dozen Cabinet members who appeared at the event, along with Abercrombie and Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui.
The event focused on discussing "hot topic" issues, such as cane burning, and answering questions from community members.
Kihei resident Joy Brann was the first to approach Gill during the question-and-answer session held separately by each state department. She said that with fewer trade wind days, "we're just getting hammered" with cane smoke and soot.
"I understand," Gill replied.
The state Department of Health receives numerous emails and calls complaining about cane smoke, Gill said.
In response to those complaints, the department issued new agricultural burn permits on March 11. According to Lisa Young at the Department of Health's Clean Air Branch on Oahu, the new permits generally contain the same conditions as previous permits but make those conditions clearer and require more frequent reporting.
For example, monitoring reports submitted to the Clean Air Branch have to be filed weekly compared to monthly under the old permit requirements. There also is additional record keeping and documentation required prior to burning and after the burning has been completed, she said in an email to The Maui News on Thursday.
Young said the permit is effective for a year. Noncompliance could result in fines and in extreme cases a revocation of the permit, she added.
Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. General Manager Rick Volner Jr. has defended the company's cane burning as a necessary and economical part of its harvesting process. He said Thursday afternoon that the company has always taken agricultural burn permit requirements "very seriously."
Though the new requirements involve a little higher level and frequency of documentation, which involves more staff time, the head of the lone surviving sugar company in the state said that "at the end of the day, it's how we minimize the impact to the public."
"We're expected to comply with the permit at all times," he said. "That's the investment we have to make."
Gill again faced questions about cane burning during another session in which he joined Department of Agriculture Chairman Russell Kokubun. Listening in on that session was longtime HC&S employee Sheldon Biga.
"We are trying to follow every law," Biga told the group, adding that he was speaking personally and not on behalf of the company.
He added that the employees are trying to "be good neighbors."
Outside the group gathering, Biga told The Maui News that he and his fellow colleagues participate in various community events to show their support for the public. He said he understands the public's concern about cane burning but said it's not something that can be solved overnight. He added that the company is looking into studies involving harvesting methods that do not use burning.
Brann told Gill that she was sensitive to the jobs that the sugar industry provides but also is concerned about the health risks of cane burning. She asked if any health impact assessment had been done on cane burning, noting that her doctor has told her that he sees around five to six patients with problems that apparently arise after a cane burn.
Referring to a preliminary study done recently by Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang, Gill said that there was more of a "public health response" on voggy, or volcanic haze days, than on days when there was a cane burn.
"It makes sense," Gill said of the preliminary results. "It's everywhere," he said of the vog compared to the cane smoke, which may be in isolated areas.
Pang told The Maui News in October that while preliminary results in the study hint at people suffering ill effects downwind of cane burning, the study won't be complete until Maui Memorial Medical Center and island health clinics allow researchers access to their patients' health records. The hospital and clinics are currently citing privacy issues in not allowing researchers access to the medical records.
Pang said that there was a greater impact on residents in his study on nonburn days, probably because burning is not permitted when there is vog from the Big Island and because burning cannot occur during cold, rainy weather, which tends to trigger respiratory symptoms.
Gill noted that his department recently brought back its air quality monitoring station in Paia. Young said that both the Paia air quality monitoring station and the Kihei station will pick up smoke from cane burning if it impacts the stations.
A handout from the Health Department on Wednesday night said that the department has been monitoring air quality on Maui since 1971 and that the air quality continues to meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
For more information on cane burning or to file a complaint the Health Department recommends:
* Calling the Health Department Maui office at 984-8234.
* Calling the Health Department's Honolulu office at (808) 586-4200.
* Emailing complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org. The public also may view data from Maui's air quality monitoring stations online at hawaii.gov/health/environmental/air/cab/cab_onlinedata/cab_onlinedata_intro_2010.html.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.