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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 2, 2006

Del Monte quitting pineapple here

 •  Del Monte's news of closure stuns, upsets workers
 •  Union optimistic about retraining, aid

By Dan Nakaso and Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writers

At Del Monte headquarters in Kunia, workers gather to hear the announcement by general manager Ed Littleton: The company is planting its last pineapple crop this month and will end operations in late 2008.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Del Monte pineapple workers in Kunia leave the assembly where they got the bad news. The decision by Del Monte would leave only Dole Food Co. and Maui Pineapple Co. as industry players in Hawai'i.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Del Monte Fresh Produce will plant its last pineapple crop this month at the Kunia plantation and cease its more than century-old Hawai'i operation at the end of 2008, eliminating the jobs of more than 700 pineapple workers on O'ahu.

Some of the Del Monte employees include husbands, wives and children in the same families, said Fred Galdones, president of the ILWU's Local 142, which represents the unionized workers.

"It will have a very far-reaching effect on the families," said Galdones, whose union represented thousands of sugar workers who lost their jobs when O'ahu's sugar industry died a decade ago. "Like the sugar workers, this will be very traumatic for those families."

State Rep. Michael Magaoay, D-46th (Kahuku, North Shore, Schofield), who grew up in the Mill Camp of the now-defunct Waialua Sugar plantation, said: "We need to look at the hysteria that people are going to have."

Del Monte's decision will leave Dole Food Co. as the only major pineapple grower on O'ahu. Dole employs about 250 unionized workers, Galdones said.

Maui Land & Pineapple's subsidiary, Maui Pineapple Co., remains the state's largest pineapple producer, with operations on more than 6,000 acres on Maui, according to Brian Nishida, Maui Pineapple's president and CEO.

In 2004, Hawai'i's pineapple industry employed 1,200 workers, according to state figures.

Del Monte's presence in the Islands began in 1902 when its predecessor, California Packing Corp., began growing pineapples in Wahiawa.

Yesterday's announcement by Del Monte that it will pull out of Hawai'i after December 2008 puts a dent in the Islands' pineapple industry, which has stabilized in recent years after a decade of decline during the 1990s.

The industry has struggled with competition from top foreign producers such as Costa Rica, Mexico and Ecuador, but was rebounding on increased U.S. consumption driven in part by the introduction of "extra-sweet" pineapples.

In 2003, farm-level sales of Hawai'i pineapples rose 2.2 percent to nearly $103 million, which made pineapples the state's largest single agricultural crop.

Yesterday, as workers received the news from company officials, some of their thoughts focused on their families and co-workers.

"It's so sad that this happens," said Del Monte flatbed truck driver Andres Felipe, who has been with the company since 1978. Felipe, 69, was more concerned about the younger workers than himself.

"I'm sorry for them," he said. "They'll have to find another job already. They're not like us old-timers who can take our retirement anytime."

TWO REASONS GIVEN

Del Monte officials yesterday blamed the end of their Hawai'i presence on two factors: Expansion of less-expensive pineapple production in other parts of the world and the company's inability to extend its current lease.

"As a result of increased planting of pineapple at lower costs in other parts of the world, the company believes that it will not be economically feasible to continue to produce pineapple in Hawai'i," Del Monte said in a statement.

"In fact, today it would be cheaper for Del Monte to buy pineapples on the open market than for the company to grow, market and distribute Hawaiian pineapple. The current land lease expires in December 2008. Del Monte has not been successful in obtaining a long-term lease extension of its current land lease agreement."

Officials with the Estate of James Campbell, which owns 5,100 acres of the 5,700 acres of land that Del Monte leases on O'ahu, learned of Del Monte's decision late Tuesday.

"We are surprised that Del Monte is attributing part of its decision to its lease," said Bert Hatton, the Campbell Estate's executive vice president-Hawai'i land management.

"In 2001, Campbell Estate made an offer to extend Del Monte's lease and Del Monte declined that offer. Starting in 2004, we made at least three separate proposals that would have allowed Del Monte to acquire the land. Again, Del Monte declined those offers. We believe we have done everything we can to assist Del Monte."

The Campbell Estate has been trying to sell the agriculturally zoned land since then and advertises separate parcels on various Web sites through CB Richard Ellis Hawaii. The land currently contains a processing facility where pineapples are cooled down, cleaned, sorted and boxed, Hatton said, as well as machinery and repair shops, various warehouses, an office and the workers' plantation housing, known as Kunia Camp.

Del Monte's statement that it was pulling out of Hawai'i, in part because of its inability to extend its lease, troubled Randy Perreira, president of the Hawai'i State AFL-CIO.

"At minimum, there are some serious questions how seriously they were trying to get that lease extended," Perreira said. "Del Monte is unfortunately using that as an excuse to bug out of this market. We're very disappointed at how this has come about."

CLEANUP PROGRAM

Last year, Del Monte spent $13 million on soil and groundwater cleanup efforts at the Kunia plantation.

The Environmental Protection Agency placed the Del Monte site on the national Superfund list in December 1994 after soil and groundwater at the plantation were found to be tainted by chemicals used to treat nematodes, a type of worm that infested pineapple fields.

Under its deal with the EPA, Del Monte will pay for cleanup measures that will address both soil and water contamination.

A phytoremediation system has been operating since 1998 to decontaminate shallow groundwater, using koa haole plants.

Cleanup crews will use a soil vapor extraction process to remove chemicals trapped in the soil, and then treat the vapors with a carbon filtering process before the vapor is released. Deep groundwater will be pumped from 800 feet down starting at the Kunia well, and will be cleaned using air stripping and carbon filters.

The cleanup process is expected to continue to 2014.

"After 2008, we will no longer be planting or have our operations there in Hawai'i," said Del Monte spokeswoman Christine Cannella.

"We do have a lease that expires in December 2008. We will fulfill all of our commitments through that time."

Asked about Del Monte's cleanup responsibilities, Cannella said: "The company will honor our commitments to ensure EPA compliance."

PLANTER JOBS CUT FIRST

The first group of employees to be directly affected will be a dozen or so workers in Del Monte's planting and cultivating department, who won't have work after the final planting this month, Galdones said. He hopes the union will be able find work for them in other departments over the next three years.

"The crop looks good, so they're going to need more workers," Galdones said. "We hope to move them into harvesting and packing."

Rep. Magaoay said: "You stop planting, those guys go first. Then the guys who tend the fields, they're going to be next. Then the crews that harvest, they'll be next. Then the guys who process the fresh, they'll be next."

Advertiser staff writer Sean Hao contributed to this report.

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com and Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.