Maui Sugarcane’s Toxic Legacy

The Pu‘unēnē Mill, Maui’s last Sugar Mill, ceased production in 2016, along with 36,000 acres of sugarcane farming in Maui’s central valley and along the island’s north shore, ending about two centuries of commercial sugar in Hawai‘i. Sugar cane farming in Hawaii became lucrative because of a sugar boom during the American Civil War, and after slavery was abolished on the mainland. Hawaii could supply sugar cane cheaply because Hawaii’s labor system at the time was a form of indentured servitude.

joanna orpia from QLD, australia, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
Puunene Sugar Mill: Photo Joanna Orpia, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Imported labor: Hawaii’s sugar barons imported cheap labor to work the fields, they imported workers from China starting around 1852 (although captain Cook had observed Chinese on the Island around 1794). Around 150 Japanese came in 1868,  and over the next 30 years 61,000 Japanese came to Maui. The Portuguese began arriving on Maui in 1878, and by 1887 over 17,000 called Maui home. Next were Filipinos, starting in 1907 over 120,000 had come by 1931. In addition to these ethnic groups, Maui also saw immigrant arrivals from Tonga, Samoa, Puerto Rico, Russia, and Germany!

Brutal Conditions: Sugar cane was labor intensive, and workers lived in Camps and had hard working conditions, Lots of manual labor for meager pay. Accidents and injuries were common, especially in the sugar mills, and labor disputes and riots were not unheard of, Strikes and protests were brutally beaten down and sometimes workers were killed by sugar company enforcers. 

Plantation-era Hawaii was a society unlike any that could be found in the United States, and the Japanese immigrant experience there was unique. The islands were governed as an oligarchy, not a democracy, and the Japanese immigrants struggled to make lives for themselves in a land controlled almost exclusively by large commercial interests. Most Japanese immigrants were put to work chopping and weeding sugar cane on vast plantations, many of which were far larger than any single village in Japan. The workday was long, the labor exhausting, and, both on the job and off, the workers’ lives were strictly controlled by the plantation owners. Each planter had a private army of European American overseers to enforce company rules, and they imposed harsh fines, or even whippings, for such offenses as talking, smoking, or pausing to stretch in the fields.

Sugar cane laborers were segregated into work camps: On the sugar plantations, the HSPA segregated ethnic groups. Unlike Japanese sugar plantation workers, Filipino laborers often lived in isolation, in bare camps with no temples, no language schools, no young men’s associations, and no community roots. While living conditions were marginally better among Japanese laborers than Filipino ones, both were subject to 10-hour workdays and wages of less than a dollar a day.

Japanese Laborers on Spreckelsville Plantation, Maui, oil on canvas painting by Joseph Dwight Strong, 1885
Japanese Laborers on Spreckelsville Plantation, Maui, oil on canvas painting by Joseph Dwight Strong, 1885

Filipino Workers: From the moment they began arriving en masse to work on Hawaii’s 45 sugar plantations, Filipinos were subject to both grueling labor for negligible pay and intense discrimination. Over the course of ten-hour days, they carried 75-pound bundles of cane that left raw, infected patches on their necks. Living in “barracks” on the plantation, sometimes with five men sharing a room only 10 feet square, their meager wages of 77 cents per day went straight back to company stores for basic necessities, making saving money to return home to the Philippines impossible. To earn a return ticket from their employer as a “bonus,” laborers had to work 720 days over three consecutive years.


Children Working in camps: Hawaiian Sugar plantations used children to catch rats in the fields, and for other menial tasks.  

Overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy: Sugar was once the dominant industry in Hawaii. White plantation owners played a large part in the 1893 U.S.-backed illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and the subsequent 1898 annexation of Hawaii.

Water Uses: Sugar cane is also a thirsty crop and required intensive irrigation. Long ditches were dug to bring water from the wet parts of the island to the central valley and the leeward sides.  Sugar cane juice was acidic and unpalatable unless it was processed with lime. The sugar mills built lime kilns to burn coral sands and rubble into lime. This was the cause of a lot of Maui’s North shore sands being extracted over a seventy-year period. 

Invasive Species: Sugar plantations were responsible for the introduction of invasive species, in the name of biological controls. They introduced the mongoose, cane toads, and other invasive species that have become pests.

Chemical Uses: Over the more recent years, there was an increasing use of chemicals and pesticides in use. By the late 20th-century large amounts of toxic herbicide Glyphosate (the same chemical used in “Roundup”) was sprayed onto the sugar cane under the trade name “Polado” as a pre-harvest chemical, that aided harvesting by killing the sugarcane plants a few weeks before harvesting. Eventually, there were helicopters flying regularly over the fields, aerial spraying the deadly chemical, killing the crop before it was also burned before harvest. 

Glyphosate, hexazinone, pendimethalin, and atrazine: Prior to tillage or ratooning, perennial weeds, such as guineagrass (Panicum maximum), are removed chemically with glyphosate or hexazinone, or mechanically with a backhoe. After the drip system is installed, a preemergence herbicide mix, consisting of one or more herbicides for broad-spectrum weed control (usually pendimethalin and atrazine), is broadcast by tractor after planting or replanting. Aerial application may be used when the soil is too wet for tractor application to prevent soil compaction, runoff, and erosion, and to spot apply post-emergence herbicides to shrubs and vines growing above the sugarcane canopy. (

PENDIMETHALIN:  According to the MSDS, Pendimethalin should be handled as a CARCINOGEN-WITH EXTREME CAUTION. it is a known Marine Pollutant and is harmful to marine life. The wide range of toxic effects to humans includes potential developmental, reproductive, and neurotoxic effects.

ATRAZINE:  Atrazine has a lot of adverse effects on health such as tumors, breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers as well as leukemia and lymphoma. It is an endocrine-disrupting chemical interrupting regular hormone function and causing birth defects, reproductive tumors, and weight loss in amphibians as well as humans.

HEXAZINONE: Hexazinone compound used as a herbicide is toxic to marine invertebrates and fish. It is an environmental contaminant. In humans can lead to behavioral somnolence (depressed activity) convulsions, seizures, and ataxia. 

GLYPHOSATE:  Glyphosate has been reported to increase the risk of cancer, endocrine-disruption, celiac disease, autism, effect on erythrocytes, leaky-gut syndrome, etc. The reclassification of glyphosate in 2015 as ‘probably carcinogenic’. Moreover, several investigations confirmed that the surfactant, polyethoxylated tallow amine (POEA), contained in the formulations of glyphosate like Roundup, is responsible for many of the established adverse impacts on human and ecological health. Two authors in particular (Samsel and Seneff) have published a series of commentaries proposing that long-term exposure to glyphosate is responsible for many chronic diseases (including cancers, diabetes, neuropathies, obesity, asthma, infections, osteoporosis, infertility, and birth defects).

Glyphosate: Increasing evidence shows that glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides exhibit cytotoxic and genotoxic effects, increase oxidative stress, disrupt the estrogen pathway, impair some cerebral functions, and allegedly correlate with some cancers. Glyphosate effects on the immune system appear to alter the complement cascade, phagocytic function, and lymphocyte responses, and increase the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines in fish. In mammals, including humans, glyphosate mainly has cytotoxic and genotoxic effects, causes inflammation, and affects lymphocyte functions and the interactions between microorganisms and the immune system. (

AminoMethylPhosphonic acid (AMPA):   The widely occurring degradation product aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA) is a result of glyphosate and amino-polyphosphonate degradation. Massive use of the parent compounds leads to the ubiquity of AMPA in the environment, and particularly in water. AMPA formation, transport, persistence and toxicity in agricultural soils. AMPA is concentrated in the topsoil, and degrades slowly in most soils. It can reach shallow groundwater, and occasionally deep groundwater. AMPA is strongly adsorbed to soil particles and moves with the particles towards the stream in rainfall runoff. In urban areas, AMPA comes from phosphonates and glyphosate in wastewater. It is commonly found at the outlets of Wastewater Treatment Plants (WWTP). AMPA and Glyphosate are now found in the human urine of children and cause oxidative stress in pregnant women.  (

Aerial Spraying of “Polado” Glyphosate: In preparation for harvest, irrigation is gradually reduced from 2 to 4 months prior to harvest to harden the crop for final ripening. The ripener Polado (glyphosate) is aerially broadcast at 0.25 to 0.5 lb a.i. per acre over the
sugarcane 6 to 8 weeks prior to harvest (

Burning the Crop:  Sugar cane was burned before harvesting, To reduce the water content, crystalize the sugar and remove much of the leaves. Along with eth sugar cane, miles of plastic irrigation tubing was burned up along with the cane.  cane burns were done at night so that the smoke was not plainly visible. But this led to health problems with people breathing the smoke and toxic fumes. if you lived downwind of a burn, you often woke up to black snow on your lawn and covering your house. This black ash was burned roundup-soaked sugarcane, burned polyethylene and PVC plastic pipe, etc. “We recognize that smoke in any form is harmful … I also don’t think we’re getting as much credit as we should,” Volner (from HC&S) said. The EPA’s Drake said that “direct exposure to any smoke can be harmful to some people”. A lawsuit brought by a group called Stop Cane Burning led to a settlement in May 2016 that prohibited any burning after Dec. 25.

Burning was cheaper than Green harvesting methods: Sugar cane can also be harvested without burning, but the company used this green harvest method only on fields that are rocky, uneven, or too close to residential areas to burn. Green harvesting requires different machinery and processing equipment, and two to three times more trips to haul the crop to the factory.

The Department of Health issued the Burn permits:  Opponents of burning complained that the DOH annually granted burning permits without regard to the effects on Maui’s schools and neighborhoods. 

Largest Drip Irrigation farm in the United States:  At one time this was the largest drip-irrigated farm in the United States. It used to have hundreds of miles of PVC pipe that is buried through the fields. farmers claimed that this pipe was never burned, they said, “If that was burned it would [release] harmful compounds. We take a lot of care to see that it doesn’t burn.”  There were also hundreds of miles of Black polyethylene pipe along the surface. The black polyethylene that was used throughout the fields for drip irrigation did get burned, The farmers used to claim that when it is burned, “it basically breaks down into carbon dioxide and water.” 

Drip Irrigation System: Main lines (PVC) were installed underground and laterals (Polyethylene) were put in near the soil surface after each harvest. The above-ground lateral tubing was polyethylene but the fittings were made of PVC and other toxic plastics that also burned up with every crop. A sugar cane crop was burned and harvested every 2 years.  

Chemical Ripening: Ripening is required to bring the stalk sugar content to an acceptable level. Ripening is accomplished by withholding N, by reducing the supply of irrigation water, and by application of chemical ripeners. Most ripening in Hawaii is done by the last method. Chemical ripeners are applied by aircraft (helicopters) equipped with sprayers. The Ripening agent used was “Roundup” weed killer (aka Glyphosate) a known toxic chemical. 

“A light dose of Glyphosate”: About two to three months before harvesting, the company sprays a “light dose of glyphosate” on some of the fields to help increase sugar levels in the stalks, Volner said. Glyphosate is a chemical found in Round Up, Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Co. said. Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. starts ripening the sugar cane by withholding water about six months before harvest. It only sprays glyphosate on fields that haven’t dried up enough to force plants to store more sugar, Volner said.  (

Puunene Mill used to burn Dirty Coal to Power its Boilers: Although they used the bagasse (sugarcane waste product) to burn and fuel their boilers, they also used Imported “dirty” coal to supplement their fuel supply. This allowed them to generate excess electricity to the Maui Power grid, But this also made them a de facto coal-burning power plant, that had no pollution controls, that was until the EPA investigation put a stop to it.  

DUSTIN PLANK, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
PUUNENE MILL: DUSTIN PLANK, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For the workers, discipline was harsh and labor exploitation was severe: “The legacy of the sugar plantations is, no pun intended, a bittersweet one,” Scott Kurashige, University of Washington Bothell history professor, told NBC News. “Unquestionably, the rise of the industry was tied to the dispossession of Native Hawaiian land and sovereignty. For the workers, discipline was harsh and labor exploitation was severe.

In those early days, plantation workers endured some horrible conditions. Some were comparable to slavery: The early Lunas were different. From 1850 to 1925, a Luna was a plantation overseer who typically carried, and wielded, a whip to enforce company discipline. In those early days, plantation workers endured some horrible conditions. Some were comparable to slavery. Their food was barely edible and housing was as miserable as it was unsanitary. Plantation management set up rules controlling employees’ lives even after they completed arduous working hours. Workers were prohibited from leaving the plantation in the evening and were required to be in bed by 8:30. After the lights were out, no talking was allowed.

How Sugar Brought An End to Hawaii’s Nationhood:

The mongooses found in Hawai’i are native to India and were originally introduced to Hawai’i Island in 1883 by the sugar industry to control rats in sugarcane fields on Maui, Moloka’i, and O’ahu.

Cane Toads: Fat, toxic, and nocturnal, cane toads (Rhinella marina) are abundant today in Hawaii, even though they are South American natives. Released on the Hawaiian Islands in the 1930s to combat sugar cane insect pests.

Two invasive species have Hawaiian reunion after 80-year separation: For the first time ever, Amblyomma rotundatum, an exotic tick that prefers cane toad blood, has been found clinging to wild cane toads in Hawaii. “This tick usually infests the toad in its native range, so it is an interesting case of an old foe catching up with a toad that long ago had left its enemy behind,” Kelehear says. “I can’t stress enough how interesting I find this.”

Thus it appears that HC&S was selling coal energy – not renewable energy: But HC&S has gotten away with no continuous stack monitoring and appears to have been out of compliance with the Clean Air Act for considerable periods of time because they claim they are a renewable energy generator.  Their plants are old (1952, 1973) and grandfathered in.  There is some question as to whether they are actually meeting even these older regulations in force at the time the plants were completed. The EPA opened an investigation of HC&S’s operation.

Sugar cane harvesting by burning on Maui island is an environmental health issue due to respiratory effects of smoke. Volcanic smog (“vog”) from an active volcano on a neighboring island periodically blankets Maui and could confound a study of cane smoke’s effects since cane burning is not allowed on vog days. This study examines the association between cane burning and emergency department (ED) visits, hospital admissions, and prescription fills for acute respiratory illnesses.

Most people in Hawai`i know that we are an oil state, but many are amazed that our number two fuel is coal. In the late 1980s the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) decided that Hawai`i needed to diversify away from being so heavily dependent upon oil. So they chose coal.

Chemical Ripening of Sugar Cane, using chemicals sprayed by aircraft:

The sugar that saturates the American diet has a barbaric history as the ‘white gold’ that fueled slavery:

When the Civil War began and cut off sugar supplies from Louisiana to the North, Hawaii became the new sugar production center for the US. Sugar cane had actually arrived in Hawaii in prehistoric times and was being grown there by the indigenous people long before Cook’s discovery of the islands, but modern plantations were not established until the mid-1800s.–the-rise-of-the-plantation-system/

Sugar Beets: Sugar beets were selected with sugar levels that were comparable to sugar cane and the cost of extraction had dropped dramatically. Now the two kinds of sugar (Beets and Cane) were almost on equal footing. By 1854, 11% of the world’s sugar came from beets and by 1899 65% more sugar was extracted from sugar beets than sugar cane. Most of the labor force in today’s cane fields are still workers brought in from outside the production regions by labor managers. These workers continue to serve as cheap labor almost as slaves when money for food, housing, and other necessities is deducted from their salary leaving them in debt.–the-rise-of-the-plantation-system/