Cane Burning Opponents Call for Suspension of HC&S Burn Permit

June 4, 2015, 1:56 PM HST · Updated June 4, 11:44 PM
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Cane smoke along the Piilani Highway in Kihei, May 27, 2015. Courtesy photo: Stop Cane Burning.

Cane smoke along the Piʻilani Highway in Kīhei, May 27, 2015. Courtesy photo: Stop Cane Burning.

By Wendy Osher

Cane burning opponents are calling for the State Department of Health to suspend the burn permit issued to Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company after heavy smoke last week reportedly sent at least one child to the hospital and resulted in numerous complaints, according to Maui resident Karen Chun of the Stop Cane Burn group.

Chun said the group is asking that the permit be suspended until a scientific proven method of calling a “no-burn day” is in effect.

Rick Volner, HC&S General Manager responded to our request for comment saying, “We are fully aware of the numerous complaints with HC&S’ May 27 agricultural burn of a field near Kīhei. We apologize for the impacts experienced by the Kīhei community, including Kamaliʻi School. HC&S did properly follow all rules, procedures and guidelines prior to initiating the May 27 burn; however, after the burn was complete, weather conditions changed, and residual smoke from the burn caused impacts in Kīhei.”

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According to Chun, two people called the Department of Health Clean Air Branch on Tuesday, May 26, warning them that an inversion layer was predicted for Wednesday, May 27, and they should call a “no-burn day.”

Kids covering their mouths as they walk to class, May 26-27, 2015. Courtesy photo: Stop Cane Burning/Truth about Maui.

Kids covering their mouths as they walk to class, May 26-27, 2015. Courtesy photo: Stop Cane Burning/Truth about Maui.

“The state took no action, HC&S burned and Kamaliʻi Elementary School experienced so much smoke that children were covering their faces and coughing,” said Chun, who noted that more than 100 formal complaints were made about the smoke.

Our email request for comment from the state Department of Health Clean Air Branch was not returned at the time of this posting (but this story will be amended accordingly if a response is made).

The group Stop Cane Burning claims that a spokesperson with HC&S denied there was any ground-level smoke, but acknowledged the possibility of odor.

Chun fired back saying, “HC&S is not being truthful. They are not following the conditions of their permit which requires that they not burn during an inversion layer and trying to cover it up.”  She continued saying, the “Department of Health must take back their job of calling no-burn days since it is obvious that HC&S is unwilling to follow the rules.”

Chun also called the current Department “no-burn day” rules “laughably unscientific.” The rules state that a no-burn day shall be called on days with “widespread haze” determined by “smoky or bluish appearance.”  Chun continued saying, “In an era of accurate meteorological forecasting, this voodoo methodology looks to be designed to be ineffective.”

Volner tells Maui Now that HC&S works closely with weather forecasting consultants to better predict weather patterns, but said, “all predictions—anybody’s—are just that. Predictions. Sometimes they end up being accurate, sometimes they do not.”  He continued saying,  “HC&S is interested in any scientific improvements that can be made to weather forecasting models and welcome any references the community may have on this matter. Following the May 27 burn, HC&S did not harvest the next two days—the first being a voluntary no-burn called by HC&S and the second being called by DOH,” said Volner.

Chun said the Stop Cane Burning group is asking the department to use meteorological predictions for inversion layers, vog and wind speed and direction.  “DOH’s no-burn method obviously doesn’t work,” Chun added.

Volner said efforts are made to notify the public of the company’s burn schedule.  “HC&S tries our best, each and every day, to farm in a manner that minimizes the impacts to the community, including making extensive efforts to inform the community in advance of where and when we are scheduled to conduct agricultural burns, so that they can be prepared. We encourage the community to sign up for free text alerts, phone calls, emails or log on to our website to be informed on upcoming burns. Residents can also find our weekly public notice of agricultural burns in Maui News Sunday paper and a link to our schedule from MauiNow.com,” said Volner.

Chun says she is backed by more than 1,000 members of the Facebook Stop Cane Burning group and more than 1,000 individuals who she said signed a petition calling for the department to use a scientific method of calling no burn days.

“If we give lung disease to even one more child, that is one too many,” said Chun. “This is an emergency and the Department of Health has to take action now,” she said.

HC&S officials responded to Chun’s comments saying, her depiction of the situation, “is neither truthful nor helpful.” Company representatives said, “We will continue to work with our government officials and community and welcome any specific references for better science. It is always easy to say something doesn’t work. What we all need is something that does work.”

Each year, HC&S conducts more than 150 agricultural burns and has been doing so for over 140 years.  Volner tells Maui Now that “Agricultural burn practices have only improved over the years, however residential areas have moved closer to the farm as Maui has become more populated.”

Volner continued saying, “HC&S tries very hard to minimize the impacts of agricultural burns,” but said, “there will inevitably be occasional impacts as we cannot control mid and post-burn changes in weather.”  He said the company follows, “stringent procedures,” and evaluate and monitor the company’s practices to minimize potential impacts. “This is our community too, that of our 750 employees, and none of us want to knowingly harm our neighbors, family and friends,” said Volner.

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