Hirono focuses on Maui County issues

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono greets representatives of Hawaii-based businesses at the fourth annual Taste of Hawaii on Capitol Hill on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. • U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono’s office photo

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono is feeling healthy, keeping tabs on Maui’s one-stop shop for medical and psychological services and has not lost hope in the Valley Isle’s agricultural industry.

The first-term Democrat has remained active since undergoing surgery to remove a kidney in May and continues to receive treatment for Stage 4 kidney cancer, which also was found in one of her ribs. Hirono returned to Congress five days after her surgery and went on to question former FBI Director James Comey.

“I’m fine, thank you,” she said in a phone call Wednesday. “I’m not out of the woods yet, but the prognosis is good. I just have to keep plugging away.”

On Wednesday evening in Washington, D.C., Hirono hosted the fourth annual Taste of Hawaii on Capitol Hill. The event highlighted nearly 70 Hawaii businesses, including 15 from Maui. Participating businesses included Maui Brewing Co., Maui Gold Pineapple Co. and Maui Gourmet Popcorn.

“They have lots of fervor and creativity,” Hirono said. “I think in Hawaii you have to be pretty creative because of costs and there’s a lot of entrepreneurs on Maui.”

Hirono has helped several business owners, such as Maui Brewing Co.’s Garrett Marrero, who sought to expand and acquire a loan. Marrero and his wife, Melanie Oxley, were named the 2017 National Small Business Person(s) of the Year last month for transforming their small brewpub into the largest craft beer producer in the state.

“I’m really happy that not only is he doing well” but that he and his wife were given the award, she said. “That’s really a success story from Maui.”

While Hirono has sought to boost Maui’s small businesses, the island’s major economic engine is the tourism industry. The industry appears to be the county’s only major industry after Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. closed late last year, but Hirono said she believes former sugar lands can still be used for crops rather than buildings.

“I hope that all the acres that went into crops will be used for crop production or agricultural activities so that ag can still go on,” she said.

Hirono took part in a blessing of Pacific Biodiesel Technologies’ sunflower biofuel project in February. The company has planted acres of sunflowers near the intersection of Honoapiilani and Kuihelani highways. The company aims to harvest enough sunflowers to produce 32,000 gallons of biodiesel — or enough to fuel over 100 passenger vehicles a year.

“Hawaii has very ambitious goals of self-sufficiency so there is, I think, interest in what Hawaii is doing,” she said. “And because the president has pulled us out of the Paris (Climate) Agreement, I think there will be more focus on state and regional collaborations to push us forward in getting away from reliance on fossil fuels.”

Hirono has been critical of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the climate agreement, calling it “irresponsible, hasty and short-sighted.” Trump’s decision appears to go directly against Hawaii’s goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.

“When the president pulled us out, it was another area we just ceded leadership that the U.S. held,” she said. “I think it’s ironic that a country like China is going to step into the void and provide that kind of leadership.”

Pulling out of the agreement raises concerns over Maui’s beaches, 80 percent of which are eroding. Experts say sea levels are rising at a faster rate on Maui than the rest of the state and will only accelerate in the future.

Despite Trump’s decision to pull out of the climate agreement, Hirono said Maui will still be protected by leadership at the local and state levels as well as with regional partnerships. She said states such as California are just as committed to limiting global warming.

“Just because our country pulled out, doesn’t mean everything we’ll come to a screeching halt,” she said.

Another Maui County concern Hirono is monitoring is the long-awaited veterans services facility. The $9.9 million facility will replace the Veterans Affairs Maui Community-Based Outpatient Clinic and provide space for the Maui Vet Center and state Office of Veterans Services.

VA strategic planner Craig Oswald said that site selection has been pushed back to the end of the fiscal year, or Sept. 30, due to reviews and final approvals that need to be made by VA headquarters. Officials originally planned to select a location to build on leased land between May and July.

It will be the first time that the VA builds a facility on land it does not own.

“We’re doing everything we can, and they understand how important it is to keep this project moving,” Hirono said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.