From March to November each year, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) burns about 400 acres of its sugarcane every week. That comes to about 70 acres a day–roughly the size of the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California.
The burning takes place, according to the company’s website, because it is “the only economical means HC&S has found to-date” of removing dried, leafy material from the cane–material that doesn’t contain sucrose and would reduce “the amount of sucrose that can be recovered by the factory if it is not removed prior to harvest.” As old photos on mounted on the second floor walls of the old Lahaina Courthouse attest, Maui’s sugar growers have harvested cane in this manner for well over a century, and HC&S has repeatedly stated that it has no plans to stop it anytime soon.
In fact, cane burning has gone on so long that it’s become part of Maui’s identity. Like watching the Maui Fair parade, honking your horn in the Pali tunnel or devouring a pastry from Komoda’s Bakery, the burning of sugar cane has reached the level of tradition in the minds of many locals.
Yet at the same time, all that smoke and haze caused by burning all that sugar has irritated the eyes, noses, throats and lungs of Maui residents for about as long as HC&S workers have torched cane fields. Many who live here aren’t affected, but for those who are, cane burns can be hellish experiences.
These are not the gripes of people who just moved to Maui and are shocked–Shocked!–to see that there’s cane burning going on. These are thoughtful complaints from residents, people who live here, pay taxes here, send their children to school here. They live here, and have every right to express their unhappiness with sugar cane harvest practices, regardless of how long they’ve been in practice.
Of course, people have always complained about cane burns, but lately it seems that they’re complaining more than ever. Maui County Environmental Coordinator Rob Parsons says his office has received more than 100 such complaints in the last month or so–complaints that will be passed on to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which (at least, on paper) will consider them when it comes time to approve HC&S’ 2013 burn permit.
Because of the importance of this issue, we’ve reprinted a small sampling of those complaints below, which we obtained both from Parsons (who first requested permission from the complainee) and from the group Maui Tomorrow, which has also been collecting cane burn complaints from residents. A few people requested anonymity, but for the most part, the complaints that follow are from people who chose to identify themselves. They represent a variety of lifestyles and points of views, but all share one trait: they want the burns to end.
If you wish to file your own complaint, there are detailed instructions at stopcaneburning.org. You can also attend a rally to protest cane burning, which will take place at the corner of Mokulele Highway and Dairy Road (near the commuter lots) on Saturday, Sept. 29 from 10-11:15am.
The age of timber, railroad and other rapacious “Barons” ended a long time ago. Yet on Maui, the populace still suffers the depredations of the sugar industry which claims unendingly that non-burning harvesting is uneconomical. Recently however, HC&S harvested two large fields adjacent to Kealia pond mechanically. Were it not economically advantageous, had they faced losing money, they would doubtless have let the crop wither and die.
About the same time, I had to drive to Kahului to escape one of the most densely smoke-filled period I have experienced in my 12 years on island. In doing so, I saw three cane fires to the south of Mokulele Highway. For two straight days, I coughed incessantly until I began to see blood specks in the resulting sputum.
Frankly, I do not give a piper’s damn whether the archaic methods of the sugar growers brings them greater riches. It is beyond time to stop that literally sickening burning process. I am certain that if necessary, fruit, nut and even hardwood trees could generate considerable income from land now devoted to sugar. We import around 90 percent of the vegetables consumed here. Why not convert the land to correct that and probably concurrently reduce the massive amounts of water needed to cultivate cane? We are already over pumping the aquifers, bringing salt and dirt into our homes for approximately the past eight years. (I have taken pictures of the incrustations on one plumbing fixture).
Aloha, My name is Sharon and I’ve lived here in Maui for several years. I and many of my friends have been suffering in many adverse health ways from the cane burning for many years now.
I understand it is most effective to let you know a specific incident, so here it is:
On Friday, Sept. 8 and Thursday, Sept. 13, I awoke to lots of cane burning smoke at 7am in Kihei. I could see it all in the valley as well. It was awful! It smelled horrible, made my eyes, throat and lungs burn, gave me a headache and made me dizzy.
Please protect me and many others here on Maui from the cane smoke. There’s got to be a better alternative.
I know it is harmful because of how sick it makes me and many others. Let me know what you plan to do to protect the citizens of Maui.
Aloha Ladies and Gentleman, today yet another burning Sept. 17, 2012 where the smoke engulfed the South Kihei area and the drive to the airport. The smell was so bad I had to use my inhaler and we again had to keep all our windows and doors shut in our home and in the car. I hope these complaints reach the movers and shakers of this community and Maui becomes the paradise it should be without cane burning.
To all who may be concerned about cane smoke on Maui,
I wanted to lodge a formal complaint about the ill-effect that cane smoke had on me today, Tuesday, Sept.18, 2012. I am in excellent health and am not currently sick with a cold or other respiratory disease, yet I have been coughing nonstop today, beginning around 11am. As my windshield was covered with cane ashes this morning, I assume that my cough is due to cane burning, as it has been multiple times in the past. This coughing is particularly disruptive as my job as a radiologist requires me to dictate for approximately nine hours straight per day. The coughing not only irritates my throat, making dictating painful, but it slows my productivity.
As a physician, I make a decent salary and I mention this as I pay a great deal of money in taxes for the state, which I am happy to do. However, if I can’t do my job effectively because of the constant coughing, I may have to move. If I move, it will likely be out of Hawaii. I work and live in Kihei.
On Keawakapu beach this morning, I visited with two retirees from California who spend a few months out of the year on Hawaii, on different islands. They noticed the cane smoke and were talking about not coming to Maui for one of their months out of the year because they stated that the smoke made them cough and “feel lousy.” It has not been the first time that I have heard tourists complain about the cane smoke. I encouraged them to lodge a formal complaint regarding this issue.
I have small children and although I love otherwise living on Maui, I feel irresponsible as a parent to continue to subject them to forced inhalation of cane smoke. I hope that those in charge of making decisions regarding the burning of cane on Maui also feel some responsibility to care for the health and welfare of its citizens.
-Name withheld at author’s request
I would like to make a formal complaint against the cane burning on Maui. I live in North Kihei and my family has been affected yearly by the smoke and dust from the sugar cane fields. School started on July 30, 20112 and my second grade daughter has been sick with asthma almost the whole school year. What is my daughter supposed to do at recess and lunch when they are burning cane? The school does not have accommodations for this. The whole student body can’t stay in when the school is blanketed with smoke and ash. I have to rely on my daughter’s teacher to allow her to stay in class at recess, but the teacher has to go to lunch, so where should my baby go then? The impact is so large, teachers are being asked to care for children on their breaks without getting compensated, schools lose federal money every day a child misses school, parents lose income when they stay home with sick children, businesses lose money when the staff stays home with sick children. This isn’t just about the HC&S employees that could be affected by changing farming practices; it affects every resident on Maui, every business on Maui and every visitor who comes here.
We can sue the cigarette companies for second hand smoke damage, but HC&S gets to disregard the negative effects of farming this way. I don’t wish the demise of HC&S, I want them to DO THE RIGHT THING and use cleaner farming practices.
Today, Sept. 10, like so many other days, my house was full of smoke, in the early morning hours. My daughter started coughing, her biggest asthma indicator, at about 5:30. I don’t have AC and rely of open windows and ceiling fans to keep my house cool. So my choice is to close the windows and circulate the smoke already in my house or leave them open and pray that fresh air will be coming shortly. Today, the smoke was better than it has been during August, but it is the accumulative affects that her immune system just can’t handle indefinitely.
Today my daughter is home sick, after weeks of burning and the addition of the vog on Friday, she has been home bound all weekend and her asthma is too bad for her to go to school. I am an independent contractor, so I don’t get sick pay when I stay home with my children. It may cost HC&S profit to change their farming practices, but think of all the other businesses that won’t be paying sick leave due to cane smoke related illnesses.
My husband grew up in the sugar plantation housing. His father and many family members worked for the mill in Lahaina. I understand and respect the history of this business, but it can be done without damaging our environment and poisoning our children.
I have lived in North Kihei for 17 years, I don’t love the dust, but I can handle that, the smoke is doing the most damage and making my family sick. Does human life really mean less than the dollar to HC&S and the county officials?
I beseech you all to do the right thing.
The smoke from burning cane causes me great discomfort and aggravation.
When I wake up on the morning of a cane burn I have to keep my windows shut because the air surrounding the home that I own is filled with smoke. I do not have an air conditioner and I need to open my windows to keep the house cool. The smoke burns my eyes, nose and throat. I find it hard to breath and it causes me to be nauseous for hours after the smoke has blown away.
I support business on Maui and like to know that HC&S is profitable and employing people here on Maui.
HOWEVER, the success of this company should not be at the expense of the health of the citizens of Maui county.
Air quality is more important than the profits and success of HC&S.
I believe we can have both healthy businesses and healthy citizens here on the island of Maui. Please take responsible steps to move us all forward.
Thank you for your time.
This year I have gotten congestion and a very bad cough every time the cane has burned. I have this right now. It has been about one week now. Today the date is Sept. 8, 2012.
I live in Pukalani where they are burning a lot of cane. At times it has a very burning plastic smell. I work in the tourist industry and I have to miss work when my symptoms get too bad. Please make them try a different way to harvest the cane.
I am writing to register a complaint about today’s open air burn of sugar cane by HC&S on Maui. I didn’t see the actual flames, but I feel them in my sinuses and lungs. The burn occurred somewhere along the Haleakala Highway, near the Kahului Airport. By 7am, the island’s central valley was covered in a blanket of brownish smoke. This morning happened to be windless.
Instead of rising in a plume, the smoke settled down across the valley, visibly affecting the towns of Kihei, Kahului, Puunene, Paia, and Haliimaile, and Pukalani. The smoke layer was so thick that it completely obscured the right side of Haleakala from view from Paia Bay. To add insult to injury, a helicopter equipped with a pesticide spray rig buzzed Paia Bay. This only served to remind me of what is in the smoke that I’m breathing: pesticides, plastic and noxious particulates.
Four hours later, the smoke hasn’t completely dissipated. My eyes are burning and my throat is tight and constricted.
I live in Paia and honestly, I could write nearly the same letter every day between the months of March and November. I wake at 5am every morning and witness as many as three burns a day during “burn season.” On several occasions this year the smoke has been so thick in my neighborhood that I’ve had to use my car’s fog lights when leaving. I’ve actually been woken up by the smoke in my house. Twice I’ve scooped up my dog and left my home simply to find somewhere to breathe.
Some burns seem much worse than others, due to wind conditions, but all leave a residue in the air. Whether the smoke plume rises straight up or the smoke settles in a thick blanket across the island, a sickening brown layer of pollution hangs in horizon late into the afternoon.
One company holds our clean air hostage. This must stop. It’s an insult to every living thing on this island. Please do whatever you can in your professional capacity to help regulate or bring an end to this savage misuse of our most precious public resource: air.
Please stop this unhealthy, filthy, costly and abusive [practice for] those with chemical sensitivities (and medical needs)… by STOPPING or helping to CAUSE THE STOPPING OF THE CANE BURNING ON MAUI.
HERE IS MY DOCUMENTATION of the fallout where I used to live in Kihei:
I COULD NOT TAKE THE SMOKE ANYMORE AND WAS FORCED TO MOVE!
Cane smoke came into my house today Sept. 4, 2012 at approximately 5:30am.
This is an official complaint. I have [reactive airway disease] RAD (only got it at age 62) which my doctor thinks I got from from last year’s terrible Paia burns. Now even the smallest amount of smoke necessitates use of a rescue inhaler and is a risk to my life. I invite you to imagine what it feels like to try to breathe and be unable to bring air into my lungs.