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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 17, 2003

Alternative to cane fires sought

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

PU'UNENE, Maui — Hawai'i's largest sugar plantation is embarking on a new campaign to find a cane-processing method that doesn't require field burning for harvesting.

Some residents on Maui are calling for an end to cane burning, citing nuisance and health reasons. More than 250 people packed a school cafeteria five years ago to complain about "Maui snow," the black ash that falls during the burns.

Advertiser library photo • Aug. 3, 2001

Stephen Holaday, general manager of the 37,000-acre Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. plantation in Central Maui, said community pressure has been building to end the longstanding practice of cane burning.

"We have to do this. Everyone who grows knows we have to do this," Holaday said. "I don't enjoy the criticism and the abuse."

The company, which begins its 2003 harvest on Thursday, hopes to develop a system that allows a comprehensive processing of the sugar cane trash, or leaves, now burned in the field, for generation of power. The income from electricity sales to Maui Electric Co. would pay for the extra equipment and manpower needed to haul the leafy trash into the factory, Holaday said.

HC&S already generates some bagasse from the milling process. Last season, more than 600,000 tons of the residual cane fiber was used as a renewable energy resource at the company's power plant.

The new system, which might cost $30 million or more, would probably require a major expansion of HC&S's Pu'unene plant to make way for an enormous boiler and turbine generator, Holaday said.

"Nothing's been built this big," he said. "It has to be capable of handling 12,000 to 15,000 pounds of fibrous material per minute."

The effort marks a switch in gears for HC&S, a division of Honolulu-based Alexander & Baldwin Inc., in its quest to end cane burning. Since 1994 the company has been testing new crop varieties and harvesting equipment in hopes of instituting widespread mechanical, or green, harvesting.

HC&S facts

• Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. produces 80 percent of the state's raw sugar.

• The company plans to harvest 16,500 acres this season, which is about 45 percent of the plantation.

• Most of the sugar is shipped to Crockett, Calif., for further refining by C&H Sugar Co. for products sold to consumers and for use by the food and beverage industry.

• Maui residents who want to be advised of planned harvesting activity near their homes, because of health reasons, can call 877-6988 to be put on a notification list. A recorded hot line — 877-6963 — also provides the latest harvesting information.

But Holaday said those harvesting methods, which involved planting of new, upright cane varieties that mature in one year rather than two, proved to be not economically viable. Among the problems are rocky fields that make mechanical harvesting difficult. The company found that it would be forced to abandon up to 7,000 acres, he said, and it can't afford to do that.

Holaday said the company will be meeting with representatives with the University of Hawai'i and Kaua'i's Gay & Robinson sugar plantation to examine mechanical solutions to the cane burning problem.

Alan Kennett, president and general manager of Gay & Robinson, said he would lend his expertise to HC&S but doubted his company could afford to join in the pursuit of the same technology.

"It might result in the demise of Gay & Robinson," he said.

Kennett, who oversees a 7,500-acre plantation in West Kaua'i, said he hears far fewer complaints about cane burning than his Maui counterpart.

"He's got a major problem over there," he said. "We've been burning cane for over 100 years, and because these Mainlanders don't like it, they think everything has to stop."

On Maui, a growing number of residents are calling for an end to cane burning and threatening legal action, citing nuisance and health reasons. Many of the complainers are relatively new to the island and moved into the fast-growing South Maui region, downwind of most of HC&S's fields.

Five years ago, a campaign to mount a class-action lawsuit fizzled, but not before more than 250 people packed the Kihei Elementary School cafeteria to vent their frustrations about health concerns and "Maui snow," the black ash that falls on neighborhoods downwind of the fields during the burns.

HC&S manager Stephen Holaday says the company is looking into using leftover cane fiber to produce electricity.

Advertiser library photo • Aug. 2, 2001

During the recently concluded 2002 harvesting season, an estimated 216,000 tons of sugar was produced from 16,600 acres harvested. That amounts to 1.5 million pounds of sugar produced each day of operation, the company said.

Herb Squires, an occasional critic of HC&S, praised the company for its new effort. Not only would the cane burning problem be solved, he said, but HC&S likely would become the island's largest supplier of renewable energy.

"It's great, really good news. This could be a win-win for everybody," he said.

Squires, a member of a public-private committee that examined mechanical solutions to cane burning 10 years ago, said the technology is ready and available. He said the system could be built in a year.

But Holaday said one year probably isn't realistic. He said the company still has to figure out exactly how much leafy trash is in the field. That figure would determine the size of the boiler as well as the parameters for how the trash-handling system would be designed.

Holaday said HC&S is in a better financial position to tackle this project because it was a good year for sugar with costs brought under control, molasses profits improved, production up and more power sold.

Still, he said he's hopeful that that government might be able to assist financially in the effort. The latest federal farm bill, for example, contains money for alternative energy.

Contact Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.