Maui Discussion

HC&S Responds to ‘Cane Burning Dangerous?’ Article

March 26, 2012, 11:15 AM HST
* Updated March 29, 9:46 AM
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Editor’s Note: Maui Now invited Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar to respond to an analysis article by Allison Sickle, “Maui’s Cane Burning – Is It Dangerous?”. Response below has been left unedited.

By Rick Volner Jr., general manager, HC&S

HC&S scenic aerial Jan 2011

Aerial view of Maui's north shore. Image courtesy of HC&S.

On behalf of HC&S’s current workforce and our generations of retirees, and our colleagues at other A&B companies, I would like the opportunity to thank the community and voice appreciation for the support of so many who value our farming operation, our contributions to Maui’s renewable energy portfolio and economic well-being, and to Maui’s rural lifestyle.

Unfortunately this article contained numerous inaccuracies and unfair characterizations of our employees by anonymous sources. The following is the full transcript of the questions and detailed answers we provided this freelance writer last week. Please know that our commitment to agriculture, to our employees and to the community is for the long-term.

Mahalo, Rick Volner Jr.


Rick Volner Jr.’s Responses to Questions From Allison Sickle 3/16/12 re: Maui Now Article


1. When did the HC&S begin burning sugar cane fields, and why do you burn the sugar cane fields prior to harvest?

HC&S Sugarcane Fields

HC&S Sugarcane Fields. Image courtesy of HC&S.

Pre-harvest burning has been a longstanding agricultural practice everywhere that sugarcane is grown in the United States, including in Florida, Texas and  Louisiana. Sugarcane fields are still burned in most areas of the world where sugar is grown.  Sugarcane in Hawaii is grown for roughly two years before harvesting, and as much as 20-25% of the sugarcane plant is leafy material that contains very little sugar and, in fact, causes a reduction in the amount of sucrose that can be recovered by the factory if it is not removed prior to harvest.  Removal of this dried leafy material reduces the quantity of material which needs to be hauled to the factory, including the soil adhering to the harvested material; reduces the number of haulers traveling back and forth and therefore reduces fuel consumption; reduces the amount of material the factory must handle and therefore its energy consumption; and improves sugar recovery.

Burning, in the field, is the only economical means HC&S has found to-date of removing the dried leafy material from its crop. In the late 1980s, however, HC&S stopped burning its ‘seed cane’ fields (cultivation of cane to serve as seed), which had been a major cause of low level smoke.


HC&S is focused on finding ways to make more energy from the sugarcane crop – or from other crops – which could preclude the need to burn as part of the harvesting process, as well as  increase Maui’s level of energy self sufficiency while continuing to provide jobs.  At present, there is no technology available to cost-effectively produce energy from cane leaves.

The energy cost of hauling and processing this additional material is higher than the value of the additional energy that could be produced from burning it. But we believe that new technologies are on the horizon, and HC&S is actively participating in efforts to develop that technology.

2. What do you spray on the fields prior to burning them?

Sugarcane is a two-year crop. Herbicides are used to control weeds primarily in the first six months of growth (young cane). By the time the crop is harvested (after two years of growth), residues remaining from herbicide applications are negligible or non-existent due to breakdown of chemicals in the environment.  We do apply a sugarcane ripener about six weeks prior to harvest to increase the sugar content of the cane.  HC&S uses NO insecticides on the sugarcane crop, instead relying on biological control of insect pests (‘bugs eating bugs’) since the 1800s.

3. Could you please describe the burn process (i.e. how is it started, how long does it last, how many acres do you burn at a time, what is the burn season)?

HC&S’s burning practices comply with both State and Federal laws, including the Clean Air Act. State laws specifically allow agricultural burning under a permit system administered by the State Department of Health (DOH). As described above, sugarcane is a two-year crop; at about 18 months of age, nutrients and irrigation are initially reduced, then stopped entirely, in order to dry out the field and prepare the crop for harvest. Harvest field preparation includes inspection of the field to locate and remove anything other than cane (items dumped by the public, usually); locating the irrigation risers and, using field equipment, pushing the cane away from the risers and other irrigation equipment such as the irrigation filters, and away from the field’s perimeter.  Following consultation with management and our weather station counsel, water trucks wet down the perimeter and stand by.  Harvest personnel are well-trained to create backfires to reduce the likelihood of a jump fire.  They use propane torches; most fires generally last 2030 minutes.

HC&S plans its harvesting activities over the course of 8-9 months, from March to November, to supply a steady amount of cane to the factory; this averages out to roughly 400 acres per week, however, the number of acres burned at one time usually is about 70 acres, depending upon field condition and location, weather, and requirements of the factory.  During the harvest season, planting operations also are ongoing, with seed cane being cut and replanted as soon as possible to return them to productivity.

4. What are the ideal conditions for burning sugar cane fields (i.e. time and wind conditions)?

“Ideal” conditions for burning sugarcane fields can vary considerably depending upon the location of the field, but generally are those weather conditions which promote a good plume rise, optimum smoke dispersion aloft, and minimal smoke impacts to surrounding areas.  The best time of day for burning will also depend upon the location of the field.  For example, certain fields are burned in the early morning to minimize impacts to the airport or to traffic on public roads.  For other fields, burns may be scheduled to take advantage of prevailing wind conditions at certain times of day (e.g., downslope winds earlier in the morning, developing to tradewinds by mid to late morning).

Of course, burning under “ideal” conditions is not always possible, so HC&S harvesting personnel must evaluate all available information to determine the best time, location, and conditions under which to conduct a burn.  Unfortunately, even the best predictions of weather conditions are sometimes inaccurate, and weather patterns can change suddenly, so burns will not always go exactly as planned even when conditions are predicted to be optimum for burning.

5. What are bad conditions for burning sugar cane fields?

The state Department of Health (DOH) will impose a “no-burn” period when they determine that meteorological conditions have resulted in widespread visible haze on the island and that these conditions will continue or deteriorate. HC&S may also voluntarily self-impose a “no-burn” period  during conditions when air quality is poor (for example, due to heavy vog), when there is heavy rainfall that would result in poor combustion in the field, or when weather data indicates there will be poor smoke dispersion.

6. What kind of notification system do you have to inform the community of when burning occurs, especially those living next to the fields?

HC&S cares about our neighbors and wants them to know about cane burning before it happens. We therefore use several methods of notifying the community in advance of harvesting activities. A telephone-based notification system gives residents the ability both to call in and find out about planned harvesting and/or to be called in advance; roughly 300 residents have requested this service. Additionally, for certain fields located in close proximity to residential areas, a company representative goes door-to-door distributing written notices several days in advance of the burn. If you would like to be notified of cane burning in your area, please call us at (808) 877-2928. HC&S will also shortly be implementing additional notifications options for the public, that may include web based, text or email options. As these options become available we will notify the public.

7 -9. Have you explored alternatives to burning? If so, can you please describe them? Why hasn’t HC&S pursued these alternatives and stopped burning? What is the cost of these alternatives vs. burning?

Over the last two decades, HC&S has determinedly pursued alternatives to cane burning, investing millions in field and factory equipment, studies, trials, and pilot projects.  We already produce renewable energy from our bagasse (sugarcane residue) and we remain focused on finding ways to make more energy from the sugarcane crop, or from other crops, which could provide an alternative to burning. We continue to investigate additional biomass power production, the production of another value-added co-product (such as fiberboard or ethanol) and continue to research biofuels.

Currently, technology is not ready that can cost-effectively produce energy from cane leaves. In fact, the cost of hauling and processing this additional material is higher than the value of the additional energy that could be produced from burning it.  In the meantime, some changes have been made:  HC&S no longer burns its seed cane fields, which comprise about ten% of our plantation, a practice that was halted in the late 1980s.

More specifically, our efforts to find a feasible alternative to burning included 1) a three-year study on options to partially or completely change to mechanical harvesting of a one-year sugarcane crop on some or all of the plantation; 2) the investment of  close to $13 million in a fiberboard plant during the mid 1990s in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to add a valuable co-product; and 3) years of ongoing research regarding the potential of ethanol production using bagasse/cane trash and/or cane juice and/or other crops. Most recently we are continuing our studies into biofuel production from cane or other crops, in partnership with the UH-CTAHR and other federal agencies.

Until proven technology can be developed to cost-effectively produce energy from the leaves, large scale harvesting of unburned cane in Hawaii is not viable and maintaining the ability to burn is still an important factor in the survival of the company and the jobs it provides to Maui residents.

10. What sort of changes do you foresee, if any, to the sugar cane industry as a result of ending open air burning?

Agricultural burning (open air burning) is practiced not only in Hawaii but in other sugarcane-growing areas across the US and the world, as well as for other crops. That said, the Company recognizes the leafy material now burned in the fields is a possible resource — and yet, the processing of that leafy material must create a positive benefit.  At present, the cost of hauling and processing this additional material is higher than the value of the additional energy that could be produced from burning it.  Prematurely preventing cane burning without an effective alternative will jeopardize the livelihoods of many people on Maui, beyond the 800 HC&S employees.

11-12. Could you please describe your irrigation system? What type of pipes do you use? Where are these located? What kind of burn management plan do you have regarding polyethylene pipes?

Except for our millwater fields that utilize a sprinkler system, the balance of our 35,000 acres of cultivated land are irrigated using drip technology, making HC&S the largest drip irrigated farm in the world. This multi-million dollar system was initially installed in the 1970s and is continually maintained.  It includes a system of ditches, tunnels and reservoirs which utilize gravity to transport water to the fields; there, underground PVC pipes are used to move water across the plantation and through filters to remove particulate matter, finally delivering water to the fields where polyethylene drip tape delivers the water to the roots of the plants. The majority of the ‘drip tape’ is also buried (other than at the ends of the fields and areas where rocks are a problem.) The PVC pipes are part of our permanent infrastructure so preventive measures are taken to prevent their burning, such as pushing the cane away and wetting it down prior to the burning of the field. Other tubing, used for sub-mains, is removed prior to the fire.

13.  What is emitted during the process of sugar cane field burning?

Emissions from burning sugarcane are similar to those from burning any other organic matter, such as wood.  The primary products of combustion are water vapor, carbon dioxide, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide.  Other products of incomplete combustion (organic compounds) are emitted in small amounts.  The drip tape or tubing is made of carbon and hydrogen, and if burned, it also would be similar to burning wood or a candle.

14. Researchers have linked particulate matter emitted during sugar cane field burning to a number of health impacts including respiratory issues. How would you respond to concerns that sugar cane field burning is negatively impacting the health of residents on Maui?

Studies have been conducted at HC&S by the Department of Health, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the University of Hawaii. These researchers have found no evidence that sugarcane burning in Hawaii causes chronic respiratory conditions or other serious health problems. Since 1987, the state has operated an air quality monitor in Kihei, directly downwind of HC&S.  The station was originally located there specifically for the purpose of monitoring air quality impacts from sugarcane burning, and has never found a violation of State or Federal air quality standards due to cane burning.

These standards are set to protect people’s health and the public welfare, taking into consideration the most sensitive populations – the old, young and those with respiratory problems. Air quality on Maui meets Federal air quality standards established under the Clean Air Act, as well as state standards. HC&S want to be a good neighbor and does recognize that smoke – of any kind – can aggravate an existing respiratory condition. That is why HC&S makes an effort to alert neighbors whenever a harvest is scheduled nearby and why we are augmenting our notification efforts for the public.

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