KAHULUI - Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. is researching options that could possibly end the need to burn the leaves off its sugar cane crop before harvest.
But for now, company officials with the state's last remaining sugar company said cane burning is needed to keep the long-standing Maui farm - and its 800 employees - in business.
"We do care about what happens in the community, and we're working very hard to mitigate and minimize the impacts we have on the community, whether from smoke or whatever else," HC&S General Manager Rick Volner said at a community open house meeting hosted by the sugar company Tuesday night.
A cane field smolders at Maalaea on Saturday. Hawaiian Commercial &?Sugar officials say the company is looking into ways to make fuel out of the sugar cane leaves so they won’t have to burn them in the future, but for now, cane burning is needed to keep the company and its 800 employees in business.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., Hawaii’s last remaining sugar company, farms 36,000 acres and employs about 800 people on Maui. Shown is its mill in Puunene.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
HC&S General Manager Rick Volner, who has worked for the company for 17 years, explains the need for sugar cane burning to residents who attended the company’s community meeting at Maui Waena Intermediate School on Tuesday.
The Maui News / EILEEN CHAO photo
More than 100 residents - a mix of concerned residents and company employees - attended the three-hour meeting at Maui Waena Intermediate School.
"Something we don't do a lot is talk about our failures. We have a library full of failures, things that we've tried, crops we've tried to grow, pieces of equipment we brought in, pieces of equipment we designed. We just don't do a good job of publicizing it," Volner said. "I think it would help the community to see we're not just sitting here doing the same things we did 140 years ago. There have been a lot of improvements."
Some residents are tired of smelling the smoke, clearing away black ash and suffering the effects of cane burning downwind. One resident asked why HC&S does not practice an alternative method known as mechanical green harvesting, which would not require traditional cane burning.
Volner said the company has. It purchased two "top-of-the-line" John Deere harvesters several years ago to collect sugar cane without burning, but the sloped terrain and rocks characteristic of HC&S fields have resulted in "significantly reduced yield" of sugar cane crop, making it not "economically viable," he said.
If the company found a way to convert the sugar cane leaves to some sort of marketable biofuel in a way that makes economic sense, it is likely that the company would stop burning the leaves, which makes up between 20 and 25 percent of the crop, Volner said.
The company, which owns 36,000 acres on Maui, burns an average of 400 acres per week during its nine-month burn season, which began this year March 13.
Burning cane can cause plumes of smoke to drift downwind, blanket cars and sidewalks with black ash, and some residents believe contribute to the flare-up of asthma and other acute respiratory diseases, especially in young children.
"We want you (HC&S) to prosper and everything, but we don't want the children or ourselves having to breathe the smoke," north Kihei resident John Laney said in testimony Tuesday. "What would it take for you . . . to shift to something that is healthier and doesn't involve burning, even if it costs some money or even if it causes some change?"
"It's not just burning season. It's nosebleed season for my son. It's an obvious effect on his body," resident Jim Perry said of his 6-year-old son.
Experts have tried for years to determine whether cane burning on Maui has led to an increase in respiratory illnesses, though the prevalence of volcanic haze or "vog," rainy weather and other factors in Hawaii have made it nearly impossible.
Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang, who testified on behalf of the state Department of Health at the meeting Tuesday, said that one of his latest studies, which has yet to be published, found that on "burn days," there was significantly more incidences of acute respiratory illness among residents who lived downwind of the burned cane fields compared to those who lived in areas not downwind.
"We did the final analysis a week ago and broke it up by amount burned, it was trending. The more you burn, the more the ratio (of people with acute respiratory illness) tipped toward downwind (residents)," Pang said, though he could not provide any specific numbers or percentages until after the study is published.
HC&S officials said that there has been no hard evidence that suggests cane burning in Hawaii causes respiratory illnesses or other serious health problems.
"We do recognize that smoke of any kind can aggravate an existing respiratory condition. That's why HC&S makes every effort to alert neighbors, especially those with health problems, whenever a harvest is scheduled nearby," the company website says.
The state Health Department's Clean Air Branch, which authorizes HC&S' burn permit every year, has cracked down on permit regulations in the last two years amid community complaints, state Clean Air Branch Chief Nolan Hirai said Tuesday.
The permit requires the company to minimize smoke impacts and nuisances but does not address ash or odors related to burning, Hirai said.
There are currently two air quality monitoring stations on Maui - in Kihei and in Paia - and Hirai said the branch hopes to install a third station in Central Maui by the end of this year.
A number of residents said they did not want HC&S to go out of business or its employees to lose their jobs, but the company should work with the community to reach some sort of compromise.
"This is the 21st century, we now have vog . . . declining trade winds, ongoing drought conditions, and . . . a growing population on this island and housing developments coming into the areas near the cane fields," Maui Tomorrow Executive Director Irene Bowie said. "We have to look at how these issues are conflicting with each other and what we can do to move forward as a community."
Bowie recommended that a working group be assembled involving "diverse stakeholders" to "talk about these issues and look at how the community and company could work together."
HC&S officials encouraged the public to provide feedback or concerns about how cane burning is affecting them by filling out forms available at hc sugar.com/cane-burning-alerts/todays-harvest-affecting-you.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.