HC&S faces $1.3M fine from state

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. faces 400 state air quality and reporting violations and a $1.3 million fine, stemming from incidents at the plantation’s Puunene Mill from 2009 to 2013, the state Department of Health reported Tuesday.

Nolan Hirai, manager of the Clean Air Branch, which issued the Notice and Finding of Violation and Order on June 18, told The Maui News on Tuesday that most of the alleged violations for excess emissions and reporting stem from the mill’s wet scrubbers, which reduce particulate material going up the smokestacks.

Based on HC&S semiannual reports and additional information, the Clean Air Branch determined that the wet scrubbers at times were “not operating within the required operating range,” which may have resulted in visible emissions from the smokestacks exceeding opacity standards, he said.

The review of HC&S records was brought on both by public complaints and regular reviews by the Clean Air Branch, Hirai said.

“We do receive, periodically, complaints about the smokestacks as well as cane burning,” he said, adding that the violations and fines were not related to cane burning, a hot-button topic in the community.

Regarding the reporting violations, the Clean Air Branch’s list of 400 violations included failure to file reports for some violations as well as filing reports of violations but not meeting reporting deadlines and requirements.

HC&S will contest the violations and fine, said Rick W. Volner, general manager of HC&S, in a statement Tuesday.

“These violations were unintentional, and the result of operating a very complex milling operation, and we regret that they occurred,” Volner said.

The 145-year-old HC&S, the last surviving sugar plantation in the state, also challenged the validity of many of the violations and the amount of the penalty, which Volner called “excessive.” He noted that each of the incidents cited in the order resulted from self-reporting by HC&S to the Health Department.

“Further, there is no indication that these incidents resulted in violations of health-based air standards. We intend to meet with the DOH as soon as possible to resolve this matter,” said Volner.

He said that the alleged violations stemmed from the operation of its three boilers at the mill and periods of excess visible emissions and the operation of the wet scrubbers installed to control particulate matter emissions from the boiler stacks.

“Operation of sugar mill boilers is extremely challenging, particularly when combusting sugar cane fiber (bagasse), which has varying degrees of moisture content,” Volner explained. “We acknowledge that over the past five years there have been certain deviations from required operating procedures for the facility’s air pollution controls.

“HC&S recognizes its responsibility to properly operate and maintain its facilities at all times. For over a century, HC&S has placed the highest priority on complying with all environmental regulations applicable to its operations.”

Volner said that the company has “performed a comprehensive review of our air permit compliance program and have implemented corrective actions to address the matters raised” and intends to work closely with the Health Department “to ensure that any deviations from regulatory standards at the Puunene Mill are promptly resolved.”

Hirai noted that “a lot of these problems are fixable” with better operator training or better procedures. “It appears they have corrected a lot of issues,” he said, noting that reports of violations this year are down.

When asked if HC&S has been cited for similar violations before, Hirai replied: “not recently.”

In the 1970s and ’80s, HC&S received citations for violations of opacity air standards for its Puunene and Paia mill boilers, said Volner. Those violations were addressed and corrected, he said.

In 2003, HC&S was cited for a violation it discovered and self-reported relating to the original permit to construct Boiler 3 in 1973, Volner said. In that case, HC&S was issued a permit by the Health Department based on the understanding that a particular federal requirement did not apply to the boiler.

That determination proved to be in error, he said. Upon being notified of the error by HC&S, the Health Department cited the company. HC&S subsequently paid a penalty of $365,000, which included the completion of a Supplemental Environmental Project, to settle the case.

Irene Bowie, executive director of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, which has been at the forefront of the battle against cane burning, said that the federal requirement referred to by Volner involved installing a monitor for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide on Boiler 3.

“For over 10 years, HC&S has delayed installing a federally required monitoring system, which would bring Boiler 3 into compliance, thereby preventing our community from knowing when legal limits to harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide are exceeded,” she said Tuesday.

Bowie applauded the actions by the Clean Air Branch “for standing up for our community’s air quality.”

“We’ve known for quite a while that emissions from the Puunene Mill are harmful and contribute to respiratory illness in our community,” she said in an email.

The Health Department and Environmental Protection Agency are responding “to the many concerns and complaints that Maui’s citizens, especially parents of children suffering from asthma and other respiratory illnesses,” have expressed, she said.

The violations are another example of how HC&S needs to adopt “21st century sustainable practices,” Bowie said.

“State and federal agencies are taking people’s rights to a healthy environment seriously, and we thank them for that,” she said.

In the appeal process, a hearings officer will listen to testimony, with parties able to question and cross-examine witnesses and present evidence, the order said. HC&S could seek to avoid any penalties, and the Health Department can seek the maximum $25,000 per day per violation fine. The hearings officer will be the ultimate arbiter.

Volner said that if the $1.3 million fine is upheld it will have “a significant impact on HC&S,” especially given operating losses projected for the year. HC&S is one of the island’s largest employers, with 800 workers.

“We will do everything we can to maintain our operations and employment base,” he said.

A copy of the Health Department order, which includes a complete list of the violations, may be viewed at health.hawaii.gov/cab/issued formal notices of violation and order.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.