Over 200 Mauians attended a community open house about sugarcane harvesting, also known as cane burning, hosted by Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company (HC&S). The three-hour meeting was held Tuesday, April 15, at the Maui Waena Middle School in Kahului. It featured multiple expert panelists (see "Diverse Group Shares Knowledge" sidebar), a volunteer facilitator, extensive public comments and a question-and-answer period.
Peter Adler, Ph.D. of Accord 3.0 served as volunteer facilitator. The "Accord 3.0" Website said it is "a strategic consulting service to engage in complex, multi-party problem-solving" in areas such as "conflict assessment." Adler spoke first and laid out the ground rules. First on the list was "civility," described as the ability to "disagree without being disagreeable."
And for the most part, those who attended treated each other with respect and consideration, and many who spoke thanked HC&S for creating a forum for productive dialog.
Anti-burn advocate Christine Andrews showed a photo of her child, saying cane burning has caused adverse health impacts.
HC&S, a subsidiary of Alexander & Baldwin Inc., is the state's largest agricultural employer with an estimated 800 workers. It also owns more than 35,000 acres here, making it the largest local landowner as well, with many of those acres dedicated to long-term agricultural use. A fixture on Maui for over 140 years, the company is the last active sugar plantation in the county.
The issue of cane burning and the resulting "black snow" is the subject of ongoing controversy here. The debate often divides Mauians into two camps. On one side are longtime residents, who seem to have become accustomed to the burns; on the other are many newer residents, who are dismayed to find themselves periodically engulfed in smoke, ash and dust at harvest time. Those who oppose the practice say that large-scale open burning (a practice they say has been abandoned in nearly every other part of the world), creates health risks to both workers and nearby residential populations.
Comments heard over the course of the evening were almost equally divided between those for and against burning. A common thread throughout the meeting was the desire to see HC&S remain a viable agricultural business.
Speaker after speaker came forward to talk about HC&S as a vital part of Maui--both past and present--and wish the company long life and prosperous future.
Typical of those who spoke was Valerie Sapourn of Ha'iku, who termed herself "pro-profit."
"Let's be profitable--let's keep Maui green," Sapourn said, referring to the broad expanses of sugarcane seen throughout the island. "But let's also have clean air and a clean ocean." She urged HC&S to "listen to the community. This is an issue that's not going away."
Some, like Abel Kaho'ohanohano Jr., saw little harm in cane burning. A business agent for ILWU Local 142 representing about 600 unionized workers at HC&S, he pointed out that he'd lived with it all his life, and now, "62 years later, I'm still here."
Others, like Mark Sheehan, took an opposing view. Sheehan, a local realtor who has been involved with a number of environmental issues, received a warm response for his comments on the "jobs versus health" tradeoff. In his opinion, the day when that swap made sense is over. His call for the company to give up the status quo and look for more viable harvesting methods and other diversified uses for its land was well received.
The question-and-answer session also raised some difficult questions with inconclusive answers. A question about possible health and genetic hazard to employees was fielded by A&B Environmental Affairs Director Sean O'Keefe.
Another question, "If we can't burn rubbish, why is OK to burn cane?" fell to Nolan Hirai, chief of the Hawai'i Department of Health (DOH) Clean Air Branch. His answer focused on the nature and kind of restrictions that exist on the current agricultural burning permit, and what HC&S must do to comply. But despite adding details of how the DOH treated cane burning, his reply did not really address the apparent contradiction.
Though little new ground was broken during the evening, the meeting succeeded in creating an environment where both sides could speak freely and work together toward a solution.
The company and its representatives emphasized the efforts that were made to assure that impact of burning was minimized, rather than proposing alternatives to keep HC&S a viable force in Maui agriculture through means other than cane burning.
Some who spoke were less reticent, offering suggestions that ranged from planting industrial hemp to "getting Oprah to help."
Surprisingly, given the high level of interest in the topic, no elected public officials attended the meeting.
However, at least two candidates seeking office were in the audience. Terez Amato (D), candidate for the state Senate seat now held by Roz Baker, representing South and West Maui, was present, blogging photos and comments to her Facebook page throughout the evening.
Also present and taking detailed notes was John Fitzpatrick, a non-partisan candidate for the South Maui County Council seat now held by Don Couch.
Both Amato and Fitzpatrick are first-time candidates for public office who have consistently emphasized environmental themes in their campaigns.
Asked to comment on the meeting, HC&S General Manager Rick Volner responded by email: "In opening our doors to the community, HC&S hoped to educate the community about its operations and to provide a forum for all of us to share information and perspectives. We wanted to create an atmosphere where people felt comfortable to speak freely about their concerns and thoughts about our harvesting practices. The discussion was productive and we will continue to keep the lines of communication open. We thank all who participated for their time and mana'o. We all live, work and play in this same community, and we look forward to being part of Maui for another 140 years."