Jobs, fields at risk in stream water dispute
By CHRIS HAMILTON, Staff Writer
POSTED: October 9, 2009
PUUNENE – They came out on their coffee breaks and at the end of their shifts, in dust-covered shirts and grease-flecked work boots and with rough hands. A circle of soot rimmed their cheeks where their respirators had been minutes before.
About 20 Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. employees held their own news conference Thursday afternoon, along with a few HC&S supervisors, to make their case to the public that 800 full-time Maui jobs with benefits are at stake if the state Water Resource Management Commission rules against them in the Na Wai Eha streams case.
At issue is HC&S’ current practice of diverting up to 70 million gallons a day from Na Wai Eha, or "the four great waters" – Iao, Waihee, Waikapu and Waiehu streams. Water Commission Hearings Officer Dr. Lawrence Miike, who also sits on the independent board, has proposed reducing that amount by half.
HC&S agronomist Mae Nakahata said that if Miike’s proposed decision stands, about 5,500 acres of sugar cane above and below Honoapiilani Highway in Central Maui would be lost forever.
"If this goes against us, it could be a show stopper," said Robert Lu’uwai, HC&S vice president of factory operations. "Our expenses keep going up, and this year was the lowest sugar production we’ve ever had because of the (three-year-old) drought."
The mill typically produces up to 200,000 pounds of sugar, but produced just 127,000 pounds this year, Lu’uwai said.
The men and women spoke outside HC&S headquarters on Hansen Road, behind the sugar mill. The employees said they organized the press conference in order to counter claims by an opposition group, Hui O Na Wai ‘Eha, and its Earthjustice attorneys who, the workers said, try to unfairly portray HC&S as just another land- and water-hungry faceless corporation.
A week ago, Hui O Na Wai ‘Eha staged a three-mile march from Iao Valley to Wailuku to raise awareness for its cause. Hui member have said that the company has access to millions of gallons of water in an underground well as an alternative source and loses millions more a day because of antiquated and leaky ditches and reservoirs.
Company officials have said they just don’t have the money to make the repairs or pump out the water. The piping infrastructure also doesn’t exist, and HC&S doesn’t have the pumping capacity to push the water that far uphill, officials said.
Led by International Longshore & Warehouse Union Local 142, HC&S employees formed its own group, Hui O Ka’Ike, said company mechanic and organizer Kelly Ruidas. The ILWU represents 670 HC&S workers, he said.
The employees on Thursday said it’s imperative that the state and county support what is now the last remaining sugar cane grower and producer in Hawaii to get adequate water to irrigate its total 34,000 acres of crops. Agriculture is dying on Maui, they said, noting that pineapple production recently left for cheaper labor in Asia, with only a handful of its once-ubiquitous fields remaining in Hawaii.
"We took it upon ourselves to do this," said HC&S millwright Sheldon Biga. "Our jobs are at stake, our very livelihood and the ability to support our families."
HC&S spends $100 million annually on Maui to run its business and uses at least 200 Hawaii vendors, most on Maui, for its needs, Ruidas said.
In addition, much of the water that the company diverts goes to Maui County for drinking water. HC&S also burns bagasse, which is biomass derived from the cane stalk, for its electrical plant. That steam plant provides 7 percent of the electricity on Maui, not including the energy needed to run the sugar mill off Mokulele Highway.
The commission is scheduled to hear oral arguments Thursday in the Na Wai Eha contested case, the same day it also will gather public input toward setting new stream-inflow standards for about 30 East Maui water sources.
The often-ugly war of words has pitted environmentalists, kuleana land owners and taro farmers against HC&S, which is a division of Alexander & Baldwin Inc.
But members of the worker group said they are trying to reach a compromise with Native Hawaiian landowners and taro farmers to make sure those people get enough water. But it’s difficult, they said, to have civil discussions with all the negative rhetoric thrown at them.
"I just don’t want the island to become like Oahu," said Damien Carbonel, an HC&S machinist. "I’m for the kalo (taro) farmers. Let them have their water, and we can have ours."
It’s not uncommon for HC&S also to be a frequent target of people who oppose the company practice of burning cane fields to get at the otherwise exceptionally sharp-leaved plant, saying the burning causes asthma and allergy outbreaks and smog.
Garret Hew, East Maui Irrigation president and HC&S water management director, said company officials are asking Miike to reconsider the breadth of his new "mauka-to-makai" stream-inflow standards. They’ve asked the commission to change Miike’s recommendations for the Waihee River from 14 mgd to 19 mgd and Iao Stream from 13 mgd to 17 mgd. The company and employees said they are fine with reducing the diversions from the Waiehu and Waikapu streams to 2.2 mgd and 4 mgd, respectively.
With that much water going into the streams, they should flow mauka to makai, Hew said. Why sacrifice 800 good jobs, especially in this economy, for a little more fish and fauna, he asked.
"Our opposition tends to paint this corporate picture of us, of HC&S. But look at us," Ruidas said. "You can see we are just normal, working-class people."
As for the accusations of land and water banking for future development, the employees and supervisors said that HC&S is committed to agriculture. And as proof, they noted that the company successfully petitioned to get 27,000 acres of its sugar cane fields designated as "important agricultural lands" this summer with the state Land Use Commission.
"It would now require legislative approval, which of course is very unlikely, for the state land use designation to be changed from agricultural to anything else," Nakahata said.
Hew said simply: Without water, A&B will survive, but sugar in Hawaii won’t.