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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 7, 2010

The case for saving HC&S

By Christopher J. Benjamin

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Felicidad Sayno is a hoe hana worker, covering the seeds planted by a mechanical planter. Smoke lingers above from a burning canefield near Pu'unene. The reasons for HC&S to stay in the sugar business are many: It employees nearly 800 people, maintains water systems and more.

Advertiser library photos

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A harvester cuts stalks into seed pieces to be washed and planted.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Workers prepare to hand-plant sugar cane seed pieces.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

McGerrow Camp in Pu'unene (circa 1960) was home to HC&S workers and was a way of life for more than one generation of the plantation culture.

Courtesy of Alexander & Baldwin

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When Alexander & Baldwin announced in January that it would continue sugar operations at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar at least through 2010, a vocal minority chose not to celebrate the preservation of jobs on Maui, but to call the decision a stunt.

It was ironic that while others have been criticized for shutting down businesses on Maui, A&B was being criticized for not shutting down HC&S.

Despite roughly $45 million of drought-induced losses over two years, A&B's management and board chose to give HC&S another chance before making an irreversible decision on its fate, understanding the larger role HC&S plays on Maui, the communitywide impacts that closure would cause, and that Maui's renewable energy future may depend on HC&S.

HC&S starts its 2010 grinding season with renewed hope, thanks to expected higher yields and higher sugar prices, but it still faces challenges, including the pending decisions by the state Commission on Water Resource Management as to how much stream water can continue to be used by HC&S.

HC&S has been called a dinosaur, inefficient and careless.

The quality of its jobs has been mocked, and its efforts to find an energy future scoffed.

These are discouraging words for our nearly 800 hard-working employees who recognize the promise that HC&S holds for Maui, and embrace the challenge of demonstrating it.

Make no mistake, hundreds perhaps thousands of jobs on Maui are at risk. These jobs cannot be replaced in the near-term. Many Maui residents will move away. What will Maui's future be then?

With so much at stake, it is important to understand the facts about HC&S and the pending water decisions.

No. 1: HC&S is an efficient agricultural user of water

Our detractors define waste as anything not actually consumed by the plant, as if farmers could irrigate by eyedropper. We have installed drip irrigation throughout our 35,000 acres to maximize efficient use of water, and recycling systems in our factory to use water multiple times before irrigating our crops with it. All water used by HC&S is consumed by the plant or returns to Maui's aquifers for use by the broader community. This is a water cycle, not waste.

Some seepage occurs in the 90 miles of mostly-lined ditches that are necessary to transport Maui's stream waters to where people can use them, not only HC&S, but residents, businesses, farmers and ranchers in Upcountry and Central Maui.

This water also ends up in our aquifers. Without the ditch system that we built and maintain, these users would have no water.

No. 2: HC&S' water use is supported by the law and constitution

Agricultural use of water is recognized both by our laws and the state constitution. The State Water Code declares it to be "in the public interest," and our constitution protects agriculture, just as it does traditional and customary Hawaiian rights.

No. 3: A&B and HC&S are committed to agriculture

A&B has voluntarily designated more than 27,000 acres of HC&S land on Maui as "important agricultural Lands," making it difficult to put these lands to other uses. A&B voluntarily waived the incentive that would have provided expedited urbanization for nearly 5,000 acres on Maui. This is a stronger commitment to agricultural lands than any other organization private or public has made.

Similarly, no company in Hawai'i has shown the commitment to agriculture that A&B has, enduring many years of losses and making significant investments long after other companies have thrown in the towel.

No. 4: HC&S has done much to explore an energy future

HC&S has worked for years to pursue an energy future. This has not been a recent effort, as some suggest. If it were as simple as our detractors think, there would be bio-fuel facilities springing up all over Hawai'i. We believe that technology breakthroughs are close at hand. Many public and private entities want to partner with us in renewable development because they know that if Hawai'i is serious about energy security, HC&S with its land, water, infrastructure and skilled labor force is uniquely positioned to help.

No. 5: The water commission has accommodated all known taro growers

The water commission returned more than 12 million gallons per day to East Maui streams in 2008 for taro cultivation and increasing habitat for native species.

That's more water than is used by the entire Upcountry Maui community of more than 30,000 people. There is no known taro cultivation on the remaining 19 East Maui streams, and healthy populations of native species are present.

State laws and our state's highest court have set forth that the Water Commission's duty is to make water decisions that maximize the social and economic benefit to the people of Hawai'i. HC&S provides significant benefits, and is part of the very fabric of Maui.

HC&S generates electricity, primarily through renewable resources, and provides 7 percent of Maui's needs. We provide water for the public drinking water system and hundreds of small farmers in Upcountry Maui.

HC&S directly supports 800 jobs in this rural community, paying more than $47 million a year in wages and benefits to its employees and retirees. HC&S infuses a total of $100 million into the economy each year, primarily on Maui. HC&S keeps the central valley of Maui green and sustains its rural character.

HC&S is uniquely positioned to move Hawai'i toward a renewable energy future. Without sufficient access to water, none of this is possible.

Christopher J. Benjamin is general manager of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.