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Maui Residents Say Sugar Cane Harvest Isn’t So Sweet

Aaaah, beautiful Maui. We’ve never been there, but we can only imagine its bright tropical flowers, its sumptuous sweet fruits, its gently lapping waves, and … the thick blanket of lung-irritating smoke that covers parts of the island from March...
Photo via Flickr user crobj

Aaaah, beautiful Maui. We've never been there, but we can only imagine its bright tropical flowers, its sumptuous sweet fruits, its gently lapping waves, and … the thick blanket of lung-irritating smoke that covers parts of the island from March through November.

Across Maui, sugar cane harvest season is beginning. But residents in the area have complained for years about one key part of the process: the torching of cane fields. Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. is the sole remaining sugar plantation on the island, which has grown sugar since the late 1800s. Prior to harvesting its 36,000 acres of cane, the company burns off the plant's leaves, which contain very little sugar and would be wasteful to transport to the company's cane-processing factory in Puunene, to the west. But according to an article printed today on Honolulu's Civil Beat, some residents have had just about enough of the smoke such burning creates, saying it harms their health and affects their breathing.

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"I got such a bad dose of smoke that I got lung disease," Karen Chun told Civil Beat. In 2011, Chun was living in Bayview, a Maui subdivision located near sugar cane fields. When they were burned—throughout the season, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. lights about 400 acres per week—Chun said it felt like her house was "on fire." That year, she was diagnosed with reactive airway disease. Chun later founded the website Stop Cane Burning.

Chun is not alone; the phone app CleanAirMaui registered more than 1,100 complaints about smoke and ash on the island in 2014 alone. Some residents, like Kimmer Spencer, a health aide at Kihei Elementary School, worry about the effect of the cane burning on children and say that the smoke leads to an increase in asthma attacks and nosebleeds.

"Some days you can just open your door when they're burning and see (smoke) coming in the classroom," Spencer told Civil Beat. "If there's big black chunks falling out of the sky, we must be breathing it."

These residents want Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. to switch to so-called green harvest methods, which require different machinery and processing equipment and as many as three times more trips to transport the cane to the factory, according to Civil Beat. For obvious reasons, the cane company has been reluctant to utilize this method.

Aside from anecdotal evidence, it's not clear whether the smoke has any measurable effects on residents' health. The state Department of Health (DOH), which grants Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. its annual permit to burn fields—without holding a public hearing first—has fined the sugar company for health violations in the past. In 2013, it charged $1.3 million for excess visible emissions and improper operation of machines at the company's Puunene sugar mill. But the DOH maintains that it monitors air quality at two stations, in Kihei and Paia, and that neither of them has registered abnormal levels of toxins in the air.

Yet Maui County has the second-highest rate of childhood asthma in the state, according to Civil Beat, and a 2006 study of cane burning in Brazil linked the practice to a 20 percent increase in hospital visits by the elderly and children.

The effects of the smoke are clear to many residents, like one schoolteacher who registered a complaint on the CleanAirMaui app.

"My classroom in Wailuku was filled with cane smoke around 8 AM," the teacher's complaint read. "Many students have asthma already and this irritates their lungs. We all have to cover our faces with our shirts to breathe."