KAHULUI, MAUI (HawaiiNewsNow) - The practice of burning sugar cane before harvesting is a health hazard, according to critics. But supporters of Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company on Maui say stopping it will shut the plantation down and end a longtime way of life on the Valley Isle.
Protesters against burning cane lined an area along Dairy Road and Mokulele Highway, many of them wearing breathing masks as they held signs.
"I've only lived here 12 years but I'm very allergic to the cane smoke," said cane burning opponent Courtney Bruch, who was wearing a mask. "Sometimes I can't work or even go out when the burns are happening."
"I've been here for ten years, and four years ago I was diagnosed with lung cancer," said protester Richard Mealey, who wore a gas mask. "When they burn the fields, I cough steadily for two days."
"We're not against sugar, we're not against sugar for biofuel, we are not against HC&S. We just want to breathe clean air," said cane burning opponent Susan Douglas.
Meanwhile, dozens of supporters of HC&S, including current and former employees, turned out for their own rally. HC&S has been in business since 1898, and is the state's last remaining sugar plantation.
"The community wants to show their support for company," said HC&S mechanic Kelly Ruidas, who has been with the company for 15 years. "Part of that support includes the practice of burning cane prior to harvesting, and they understand why we burn cane."
Supporters also contend that stopping the practice of burning cane would put 800 people out of work.
"The effect of HC&S closing would be so destructive to Maui," said Doug Sheehan, who works at the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum near the mill. "We'd have tourism and that's all we would have. And if tourists didn't come, what would we have? Nobody would be working."
"To be honest with you, it's kinda ridiculous," said retired HC&S worker Charles Jennings. "People come here and try to stop a lifestyle here on the island. The bottom line here is that we're working. People, we need jobs on this island."
"I think in the end its all about people, the 800 employees, 800 of my fellow workers who depend on Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar to support their families," said Ruidas.
HC&S' permit to continue operating is up in March. Opponents say they are considering legal action to stop the cane burning.
Wendy Osher and MauiNow.com contributed to this report.
Previous story: Maui cane burning controversy