Maui residents file complaints over severe cane burn smoke

Photo courtesy Sandi Ioakimi

Sugar plantations are part of Hawaii’s history. While most of them closed over the years, there’s still one left on Maui: Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company.

The company burns sugarcane fields as it’s always done before harvesting, but now there’s a movement on Maui to stop that.

The smoke got thick on Piilani Highway in Kihei last week Wednesday.

Karen Chun, who’s leading the movement Stop Cane Burning, says she had to take her granddaughter to the hospital because she couldn’t breathe.

“I tell you there is nothing scarier than having a limp two-year-old who can’t breathe and you’re rushing them to the hospital and you’re hoping that you get to the hospital before they die,” said Chun.

The Department of Health is in charge of telling HC&S whether or not it can burn its sugarcane fields based on the weather conditions.

“The department is investigating the incident of May 27 of last week and we’re investigating the parameters that we have for the permit conditions,” said Keith Kawaoka, the department’s deputy director of environmental health.

The woman who took a picture of Kihei the morning of May 27 says it was so bad, ash was falling on her car while she was taking her daughter to school.

“We’ve heard indications that some of the schools in that area in Kihei and surrounding neighborhoods were affected, and we do take that very seriously. We’re also looking at what ways we can improve on the prediction of the dispersion of the smoke,” said Kawaoka.

Chun says this isn’t just a recent thing. She says she’s lived in Paia for 20 years, putting up with the cane burning.

Four years ago, she was diagnosed with a lung disease. She says her doctors told her it was most likely caused from breathing in the smoke from the sugarcane.

“It changed my life so profoundly and I don’t want to see anybody else get sick like I am,” said Chun.

The group is calling for no cane burnings until the Department of Health can figure out a more scientific way for calling no-burn days.

The DOH says it is in the process of developing better methods.

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