Shipping sugar

Trucks, conveyor belts move mountains of golden sweetness

EDITOR’S NOTE: “The Last Harvest” is a series chronicling the various aspects of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.’s final harvest as it shuts down at the end of the year after a 145-year run. The shutdown of HC&S represents the end of sugar in Hawaii. The installments will run periodically throughout the year.

KAHULUI — The sun-baked, wind-blown sugar cane that Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. burns, harvests and mills arrives here, where soft raw sugar crystals form more than several-story-high mountains of golden sweetness.

Kahului Trucking & Storage Co. hauls about 150,000 tons of sugar and 55,000 tons of molasses annually to the company’s Building 3 at Kahului Harbor. The building is 300 feet long and 150 feet wide, giving it 45,000-square-feet, or nearly a football field of space, as a way station for sugar en route from the Puunene Mill to the Mainland. Recently, the building was only about a quarter full, but at times “it’s full to the door,” said Joy Yokouchi, KT&S trucking supervisor.

A sweet and sour aroma filled the air as traces of sugar spilled outside the building during transport and onto concrete floors.

Eventually, the sugar makes it way to the Moku Pahu for shipment to the C&H refinery in Crockett, Calif.

Trucks, conveyor belts move mountains of golden sweetness. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The impending closure of the HC&S plantation means the end of an era, and the realization that the mounds of sugar will soon be just a memory for Building 3, which is near the intersection of Amala Place and Hobron Avenue.

KT&S shop supervisor Michael Mendoza said he’ll miss the sight and smell of sugar from his vantage point about 80 feet overhead in storage Building 3 as sugar fills in the vast room below him. He takes in the view from a platform and a catwalk of sorts.

At the catwalk, crews use a “plow” to form the towering mounds of sugar that come off a conveyer belt. The belt transports the sugar from delivery trucks into storage buildings.

“It’s a pretty neat operation, (but) you are never going to see it again,” said Yokouchi, as she admired the view outside of Building 3 overlooking the northern east end of Kahului Harbor.

Around 30 tons of sugar and 30 tons of molasses per trip can be taken from the mill to the harbor. Sugar and molasses are handled separately.

Kahului Trucking & Storage Co. truck driver John Boyd returns to his rig after filling both of its holds with sugar from twins silos at Puunene Mill. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

At Puunene Mill, truck driver John Boyd, 64, uses his truck’s rear-view mirrors to line up its trailers with the silo shoots that spit out the golden sugar crystals.

He climbs onto a platform where he turns on a switch to open the silos and release the sugar. In less than 10 minutes, the process is done. Boyd flips a switch in his truck to close the covering on his trailers to ensure safe transport of the sugar to the harbor.

At KT&S, the truck climbs a hill to enter the elevated scale house where sugar and molasses are weighed.

Other commercial businesses use the scale to weigh goods before they’re transported on ships. The scale will close when HC&S shuts down plantation operations in December.

The units on the back of the truck are equipped to release the sugar from its bottom, so that the sugar falls several feet from the elevated scale platform onto an open grating. It then falls into a system that channels the sugar onto a conveyer belt.

KT&S truck driver Dado Yadao fills his molasses truck with the sticky brown syrup at Puunene Mill. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

It carries the sugar, steadily climbing up about 80 feet, reaching into one of KT&S’ storage buildings. Next to the conveyer belt is a set of stairs that employees use to follow the belt’s tracks. (Another way to get to the top of the storage building is to climb more than several flights of stairs outside the building in the open air, a frightful trek for anyone afraid of heights.) Near the scale house is a door to a slender enclosure that keeps the conveyer belt and sugar protected from the elements. On the door is signage warning trespassers to keep out and not steal sugar.

KT&S General Manager Glenn Wilbourn said non-food-grade sugar has been stolen from the storage sites. Sometimes, employees have found plastic buckets in the warehouses, probably left behind by thieves.

The conveyer belt runs from the scale house to nearly the top of the storage buildings. It reaches around eight stories high. A “plow,” as workers call it, sits on tracks next to the catwalk, also near the top of the storage building. The plow directs sugar onto the building floor below, creating mounds of sugar.

Views from the catwalk are not for the faint of heart. Open holes in the metal catwalk offer perilous views of sugar stacks and the floor below.

There are three storage buildings on the KT&S site. Building 1 is no longer used because it has wooden floors, but Buildings 2 and 3 are still functioning. In both buildings, there are hoppers, or large square holes, in the floor. Building 2 has 16 hoppers, and Building 3 has 30. The hoppers are 8 feet by 8 feet, and they open to another conveyer belt below the concrete floor.

KT&S truck driver John Boyd fills his rig with sugar at Puunene Mill. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Mendoza said sugar falls into the hoppers below. Bulldozers push the sugar from the floor of the buildings into the middle of the floor where the hoppers collect it. When sugar is being pushed around the building, there’s a hum of the bulldozers, and “sugar dust” hangs in the air.

Underneath the floor is a separate narrow room containing a conveyer belt, and just enough room next to it for a person to walk alongside.

In the room, workers turn wheels to open up the hoppers to allow the sugar to drop onto the conveyer belt from the floor above.

Wilbourn said wooden mallets are used to hit the side of the hoppers to loosen the sugar when it gets stuck to the sides.

Mendoza said there are marks on the metal hoppers made by workers banging the mallets on their sides.

Unrefined sugar is piled high in Kahului Trucking & Storage Co.’s Building 3 last week. The building is expected to be filled in the next few weeks and then emptied as commercial sugar production ends on Maui and the last shipment is transported to the Mainland on the final barge. Sugar is delivered to the building via a conveyor system that drops it from the rafters. The sugar is removed via vents, or “hoppers,” in the floor that can be opened to allow it to fall onto another conveyor system, this one a series of belts running to the sugar barge. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The conveyer belt runs underneath the building’s floor, then outside on an enclosed track to the harbor where the sugar meets the ship.

The conveyer belt can move out about 1,000 tons of sugar an hour to the ship, officials said.

“It’s a pretty neat operation,” Yokouchi said.

While most of the attention on the closure of HC&S’ operations has focused on cane burning and sugar cane processing at the Puunene Mill, the transporting of sugar has its own storied history.

KT&S, as longtime residents call it, is a company with a history of transporting goods and materials, beginning with railroads in 1879.

HC&S acquired Kahului Railroad and Maui Railroad & Steamship in 1899 and merged them into one, Kahului Railroad. In addition to transporting sugar and people, the railroad began development at Kahului Harbor, some of that development which still remains today, where old railroad tracks still can be seen at the harbor.

In its heyday, Kahului Railroad hauled bagged sugar from factory to ship and later processed sugar and molasses in specially designed cars. The railroad also moved gravel, lumber, rocks and pineapple, sand and other goods.

In 1950, HC&S replaced its railroad with a new era of Tournahaulers, the largest motorized vehicles in Hawaii at the time, according to the company. Tournahaulers, still used today, transport harvested cane from the field to the mill.

In 1965, Kahului Railroad abandoned its railroad operations and what was left became Kahului Trucking & Storage Inc.

KT&S is a subsidiary of Alexander & Baldwin, the parent company of HC&S.

Early this year, A&B announced the closure of the plantation at the end of the harvesting season, triggering hundreds of job losses for sugar workers.

Besides transporting sugar, KT&S until recently transported goods for other commercial entities. After sugar ends, it will continue its repair and parts business to provide service for container chassis and repairing vehicles and even lawn mowers. The business also supplies parts and rents forklifts.

But gone will be the trucks that drive around town with the KT&S logo. They will no longer be transporting goods and sugar.

“You won’t see any Kahului Trucking & Storage trucks driving any more,” Wilbourn said.

Wilbourn called the shutdown “sad,” noting that he started working at the company as an HC&S mechanic repairing Tournahaulers decades ago.

Mendoza, too, started with HC&S as an apprentice in its mechanics program. But now, like Wilbourn, he’s in management.

“We all came up through the ranks,” Wilbourn said. “That (HC&S) was a place you were given the opportunity to get to move up through the ranks. I don’t know how many companies are like that today.”

At KT&S on Maui, there are 42 workers, six workers called “bulk sugar workers” and truck drivers will be let go when sugar operations wind down, company officials said.

KT&S has operations on Kauai and the Big Island that will remain open.

Truck driver Dado Yadao, 46, hauls loads of molasses from the Puunene Mill to the harbor.

At work, Yadao climbs a platform at the mill to fill his tanks. He uses a hose to clean up any splatters. Like the loading of sugar, it takes less than 10 minutes to fill up the tanks and before he drives off to the harbor. There, he transfers molasses from his trucks to storage tanks.

Unlike the bulk sugar, which can easily be held at the mill, there is not enough room or tanks at the mill for all the molasses, so drivers need to empty their the molasses tanks at the mill before they go home for the day, which is around 3:30 p.m.

Both truck drivers Boyd and Yadao have gotten calls from Yokouchi in the early-morning hours to make a special trip to the mill to haul molasses because tanks at the mill were getting full.

“It’s a huge procedure to stop a mill,” Boyd said. “They’ll call Joy in the middle of the night.”

Boyd said he may retire when he is laid off.

“But I’m still healthy,” he added. “KT&S has been a good company to work for,” he said.

“I’ve always got along good with the management. Once you know what you are going to do for the day, nobody bothers you,” Boyd said.

Yadao will be looking for another job, possibly as a commercial truck driver.

Yadao moved from Maui Land & Pineapple Co. after he learned that the company would shut down. Again, he’s facing the loss of his job.

“Yeah, hard luck,” he said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

All that’s left in Building 2 is a light dusting of sugar after the rest has been pushed into floor hoppers and removed by a conveyor system that starts underground and ends up high in the rafters of Building 3. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The “plow” moves on railroad tracks high in the rafters of Building 3 to allow KT&S workers to control where the conveyor system dumps its sugar to make giant piles below. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

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