Cane burning, the health consequences and how to bring it to an end were the primary topics discussed at a morning town hall-style gathering hosted by state Rep. Kaniela Ing on Saturday, Nov. 16. The event drew a crowd of about 70 Maui residents to the Kihei Charter School in Lipoa Center. Although the meeting began almost an hour late due to a delay in the lawmaker's flight from O'ahu, the crowd stayed put and grew larger as time went by.
Ing, a freshman Democrat representing Kihei, Wailea and Makena, is completing his first year of a two-year term. He called the meeting to hear concerns prior to the beginning of next year's legislative session.
As the meeting got underway, a steady stream of Maui residents, some from as far away as Makawao and Pa'ia, came forward to call his attention to the impact of the smoke and ash created when Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company (HC&S) burns sugar cane. There were many references to adverse health effects, as well as concerns about air quality and pollution of land and sea.
Koa Martin, an HC&S employee who heads Hui O Ka ‘Iki, an HC&S-affiliated community service group; Karen Chun of Pā‘ia, a “Ban the Burn” organizer; and Sheldon Biga, a longtime HC&S employee and ILWU unit chair, remained after Rep. Kaniela Ing’s pre-session meeting in Kīhei, determined to find common ground through more dialog.
Those against burning included Dennis Kleid, a noted microbiologist living in Wailea, who asked Ing to introduce a measure that would remove the cane-burning exemption from state law. He brought the language of the desired legislation with him.
Ing also heard parents of children who have experienced asthma and respiratory difficulties.
Linda Caminos of North Kihei said, "Ban cane burning. My son has asthma non-stop."
Others, like John Gelert, were equally concerned about the ocean. He noted the huge amount of ash accumulating in the near-shore sea bottom.
Several who spoke pointed out that Maui is reportedly the only place in the U.S. where burning cane is legally allowed.
Also present were HC&S employees who spoke about their desire to keep the jobs and the income that agriculture provides here. Speaking as individuals, they indicated their willingness to work with the "Ban the Burn" group to seek a solution to the long-running and much-discussed issue.
Sheldon Biga, a longtime HC&S employee speaking as an individual, said that the company has been in business over 100 years. "Let's work together instead of fighting," he said to applause. "We want these jobs to last another 150 years. Let's work to find a solution. It's not productive to yell at each other."
Biga, who also serves as chair for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union's (ILWU) unit 2101 representing HC&S workers, later said that his reaction to the Kihei meeting was "positive." He added that another meeting for HC&S workers is scheduled with Ing. He expected that future talks including both sides will be ongoing.
Ing listened to each speaker and made a number of comments of his own. He took pains to point out that even though those attending this meeting were overwhelmingly in favor of action to halt the cane burning, if another meeting were to be called by the company, then those who opposed such action would be an even larger group.
He explained that HC&S is a part of Alexander & Baldwin (A&B), Maui's largest landowner and a company with formidable lobbying, political and financial resources-- which they have used in the past to defeat and delay changes in harvesting methods here.
Ing also identified himself as a fourth-generation Mauian with many "aunties and uncles" employed by sugar, a statement that caused a member of the audience to rise and remind him that he was elected to represent South Maui and not his family or the company.
Responding, the lawmaker indicated a willingness to introduce legislation and strategize with both sides to work through their differences in a way that could be mutually beneficial prior to the start of session.
Seldom has this incendiary topic been discussed in such a civil manner, with those both for and against a ban indicating a willingness to find common ground.
Though Ing favored more dialog on the cane-burning question, he did not state his own position. He did reiterate that he opposes smoking cigarettes on the beach.
Responding to a question from the floor, Ing gave an update on the beach smoking ban legislation he had proposed, saying that while it had failed in the 2013 session, a similar measure had been adopted in Honolulu at the county level. He said the matter will be discussed again in the next session.
Also mentioned during the meeting were the progress of Kihei High School, smart meters, pesticide use, industrial hemp and a variety of other subjects.
Regarding the high school, Ing said he expects that Gov. Neil Abercrombie will release the funds and that the long-awaited project will move ahead rapidly.
Also of concern was the use of the pesticides 2, 4-D and atrazine. A constituent came forward with a moveon.org petition stating that "these chemicals are used all over Maui for sugar cane production and should be banned."
Debra Greene, Ph.D., spoke in opposition to smart meters, energy monitoring devices being tested by the Maui Electric Company in the Maui Meadows area. She called the meters a "health risk and surveillance device" and urged members of the audience to learn more about the subject at StopSmartMetersHawaii.com.
The topic of industrial hemp as an alternative crop was also briefly discussed.
Next year's legislative session begins in January.