The Burning Question

Can the last Hawaii sugar plantation survive without cane fires? What happens to Maui if they stop?


Those health concerns are exacerbated by climate change. Maui is not getting the consistent trade winds it once enjoyed. When trades slow, vog (volcanic smog) drifts in from the Big Island to muddy the Valley Isle air. Cane smoke and ash linger and add to the haze. On windless days, HC&S must suspend burns; last year’s harvest season had to be extended to make up for all the missed workdays.

Health complaints multiply when vog blankets Maui, and also during rainy seasons, when there is an abundance of allergy-inducing mold and mildew. The fact that HC&S generally does not burn during these times has made it difficult to measure cane burning’s impacts on a community-wide scale. Dr. Lorrin Pang, the state’s Maui District health officer, says the agency that sets the standards, the EPA, maintains that studies on cane burning’s effects on respiratory problems will be flawed due to this “confounding.”

After years of work, Pang and Christina Mnatzaganian, doctor of pharmacy at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, believe they have found a way to control for the confounding effects. As detailed in a paper that is currently going through peer review, they have developed a way to apply GPS mapping to addresses and data gleaned from state hospital and pharmacy records to compare impacts on upwind and downwind residents on specific days. As Pang told Maui News staff writer Eileen Chao on April 15, “We did the final analysis a week ago and broke it up by amount burned. . . . The more you burn, the more the ratio [of people with acute respiratory illness] tipped toward downwind [residents].”

Pang expects the study to have an impact on where and how much HC&S is allowed to burn in the future, but for now, EPA Region 9 Air Division Associate Director Kerry Drake says the plantation is within its rights under the federal Clean Air Act.



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