Dust can be a big hassle. Even a health hazard. Ask the good people at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S), which runs Pu`unene sugar mill–the last one in the state. State health officials recently busted the mill for producing too much dust in one of its fields. But a warning to those members of the public who wish to complain about it: you’re in for a long and frustrating duel with bureaucrats if you do.
The Department of Health handed down its notice of violation against HC&S on Nov. 3. It consisted of just two sentences. “Caused or permitted visible fugitive dust to become airborne without taking reasonable precautions on December 13, 2014,” states the notice. “Visible fugitive dust was observed being generated in Field 901 without reasonable precautions being taken.”
Field 901 sits alongside Mokulele Highway, near the Maui Humane Society. As part of the violation, the DOH fined HC&S $3,300.
Fugitive dust (also called particulate matter) can be a health hazard, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Particle pollution contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small that they can get deep into the lungs and cause serious health problems,” states the EPA’s website. “The size of particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems. Small particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter pose the greatest problems, because they can get deep into your lungs, and some may even get into your bloodstream.”
This isn’t the first time in recent years that HC&S has run afoul of the DOH. In the summer of 2014, the health department fined HC&S $1.3 million for about 400 air quality violations at the Pu‘unene mill from 2009 to 2013. At the time, HC&S General Manager Rick Volner said his company would contest the fine; a spokesperson for HC&S recently told MauiTime that the company is “still in discussions with the DOH” over those violations.
Six days after issuing the violation to HC&S, the Department of Health sent out a press release on four separate enforcement actions. One of them concerned HC&S, and the release included a couple more details. “Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S) was cited for a fugitive dust violation that occurred on Dec. 13, 2014,” states the DOH press release. “The alleged dust violation was documented and confirmed through photographic evidence provided by a third party witness.”
MauiTime recently spoke with that “third party witness.” Concerned about safety because of the intensely polarized feelings on Maui surrounding the HC&S sugar mill and its operations, the witness requested anonymity. The witness also provided us with copies of emails that went back and forth with the DOH as the investigation progressed. They detail a long and complex process that can be daunting for any individual who wishes to make a similar complaint.
“It was a particularly windy week,” said the witness, who had to breathe through a t-shirt. “There was a high wind warning, but there was no sign on the road and no water truck. I go to the Humane Society quite often, but it was engulfed in dust.”
After flagging down an HC&S worker near the highway, the witness was able to get the name and number of a supervisor at the mill. But their conversation, according to the complaint letter the witness sent to the DOH, was short.
“I called him at (808) 264-4682 and told him what was going on,” the witness told the DOH. “He brushed off my concerns and told me to call the main office if I wanted to complain. I called the main HC&S line and all I got was a message but it did list the number for their security team. I called the number and explained the situation to the security employee. He informed me that there were no supervisors that I could speak to. I asked him if there was anybody I could talk to about the problem to see if they could stop their operations for the day due to the excessive winds and they hung up on me.”
In a Nov. 10 Maui News story on the violation, HC&S General Manager Rick Volner said his company “places the highest priority on compliance with all environmental regulations, which apply to its operations, and also strives to minimize any impacts of its farming operations upon its neighbors.” Through a spokesperson, Volner told MauiTime that HC&S is “currently evaluating the [Nov. 3] citation” (it has 20 days to do so).
But the complaint the witness filed with the DOH was more than a simple email. The witness also has had to include two photos, taken a few minutes apart, as well as video footage of the dust. The witness sent all that on Dec. 13, 2014. After receiving an acknowledgment from the department that they’d received the complaint, the witness heard nothing (the witness also reported the fugitive dust on Maui Tomorrow’s Clean Air smart phone app, which also time and date-stamps the complaint as well as forwards it to the EPA).
On Feb. 21, 2015, the witness followed up with an email asking about the progress, but department officials wrote back saying it was “pending.” The witness emailed again on April 1. “The videos I sent in were detailed as well as the weather reports and the time and location so it should be enough to go on,” the witness said in the email to DOH investigators. “Please let me know approximately how much longer it will take to begin enforcement actions.”
According to the witness, that prompted a call from investigators the next day, confirming that they would pursue an enforcement action against HC&S over the dust complaint. “I wanted to thank you for the call back this morning informing me that you will be pursuing an enforcement action against HC&S for a fugitive dust violation on 12/13/14,” the witness wrote in another follow-up email, dated Apr. 2. “Plowing operations in the high winds actually occurred over a 3 day period and not just on the day of my video. If you look at the wind speeds you will see that they had no business plowing that field on those days in question.”
Then the DOH went silent again. The rest of April passed with no action. Then all of May. By early June, the witness wrote to state Senator Josh Green, a medical doctor and Democrat representing Kona and Ka‘u. “I filed this complaint back in December of 2014 and the DOH-CAB investigated and said that they found that HC&S violated their permit,” the witness wrote on June 3. “However, it has been almost 6 months since I filed my complaint and the DOH-CAB [Clean Air Branch] still have not issued a formal citation.”
Green responded the next day. “I’m pressing the DOH now on this… This and the burning,” Green said in a June 4 email to the witness.
This heartened the witness, but if Green did indeed “press” the DOH, it didn’t really show. That’s because the DOH is facing a substantial backlog of cases (indeed, of the four enforcement actions listed in the DOH’s Nov. 9 press release, the HC&S violation is the most recent–the others date to early 2014 or even 2013). By mid-June 2015, the witness emailed DOH Director Virginia Pressler, MD.
“I filed this complaint back in December of 2014 and the DOH-CAB investigated and said that they found that HC&S violated their permit,” the witness wrote. “Can you look into this for me as 6 months should be more than enough time to investigate and cite, especially in a case as egregious as this.”
Pressler responded that day. “I have received and read and will discuss with [DOH Deputy Director of Environmental Health] Keith Kawaoka who is on leave for the next 10 days,” Pressler wrote to the witness.
Another month passed. “Just checking in to see if you had a chance to look into this yet,” the witness wrote in a July 19, 2015 email to Pressler. “It has been more than 7 months and to my knowledge, the DOH-CAB still has not issued a citation for this violation.”
Again, Pressler responded to the witness that day. “I apologize if you did not receive a response,” she wrote. “Copying Keith Kawaoka to have the appropriate person get back to you.”
The next day, July 20, a Clean Air Branch officer emailed the witness. “ The Clean Air Branch is processing and finalizing the enforcement action,” Jill Stensrud, the Clean Air Branch enforcement manager. “I understand your concern that it has been more than seven months since your email to our office and we will inform you once we issue the enforcement action.”
August came and went with no word from anyone. The witness got impatient again. “Just checking in to see if the enforcement action has been completed and I also wanted to see how I can go about getting a copy of the case file,” the witness emailed Stensrud on Sept. 5.
In a now very familiar pattern, Stensrud responded to the witness on Sept. 11. “The Clean Air Branch has not completed the enforcement action and we will inform you once we issue the action,” she wrote.
And that was the last the witness heard from the DOH, until Nov. 9, when The Maui News reported on the violation.
“It takes the Department of Health so long,” the witness told me last week. “They make it very difficult to file a complaint.”
But that’s not the end of the story. On Nov. 7–two days before The Maui News story on the violation came out–the witness once again saw HC&S workers plowing a field in high winds. “Winds were 25 to 32 miles per hour that day,” the witness said. “And they were plowing just a few feet from the bike path on Mokulele Highway.” So once again, the witness took photos and video footage of the plowing, then filed another fugitive dust complaint against HC&S. Look for the results of that sometime late next year.
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Dust photo courtesy the complaint witness