Improving vista views from atop Haleakala won't require any new restrictions on man-made pollution on Maui over the next few years, according to a proposed federal plan.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says haze caused by the Big Island's Kilauea volcano is the main source of "visibility impairment" at Hawaii's two national parks: Haleakala National Park and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
But because the agency can't cap or regulate emissions from the volcano to improve views at the parks, it has proposed regulating man-made pollutants.
The federal government has mandated that states improve views at national parks across the country. For Hawaii, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says volcanic emissions, or vog, from Kilauea on the Big Island are the largest source of “visibility impairment” at both Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala National Park. The slopes of Haleakala are shown blanketed in vog recently.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
For Maui, the EPA said it looked at man-made pollution from Maui Electric Co.'s coal-fired generators, agricultural burning and emissions from vehicles, aircraft and ships. The EPA is not recommending any pollution controls for Maui through 2018 for the plan that extends to 2064.
A public hearing on the regional plan was held at the University of Hawaii Maui College on May 31.
Maui-based environmental groups argued that the EPA should reconsider the impact agricultural burning has on the island's skies and residents.
"We realize that the vog is something we cannot control or mitigate, but we urge you to take a second look at utilizing your authority under the regional haze rule to clear the air of cane smoke, coal fire and fugitive dust," environmental advocate and Maui Tomorrow Executive Director Irene Bowie wrote in comments to the EPA. "By doing that, we can improve public health at the same time we enhance the vistas at Maui's national park."
Under the Clean Air Act, states were required to develop and implement air quality protection plans to reduce pollution that causes visibility impairment in 156 national parks and wilderness areas. Visibility impairment, the EPA says, reduces the clarity, color and distance that one can see.
Congress in 1999 required that all states submit plans by December 2007 that include goals for an initial planning period that ends July 31, 2018, with the ultimate goal of achieving "natural visibility conditions" by 2064 at the national parks.
Hawaii failed to submit a plan by the deadline, which triggered the EPA to do its own plan. The agency is accepting written comments on the plan until July 2.
Nearly all of Hawaii's haze, the EPA says, can be attributed to the volcano, commonly referred to locally as vog.
"The dominant cause of visibility impairment at Hawaii's (national parks) is sulfate compounds, and over 96 percent of the sulfate emissions in Hawaii are from the volcano," the 89-page plan says. "However, because the volcanic eruptions vary greatly from year to year with no discernible pattern, it is impossible to predict future volcanic emissions."
So the agency turned its focus to other significant sources of sulfur dioxide. The plan, as proposed, has an upbeat outlook for Maui's skies.
"Our analysis shows that existing requirements under the Clean Air Act will result in net reductions of (man-made) emissions of (sulfur dioxide) on Maui during this first planning period," the plan said. "So it is reasonable to assume that the visibility at Haleakala on the best days is not getting worse. Similarly, with this drop in emissions, it is reasonable to assume that the visibility on the worst days will improve."
While most of Maui's man-made sulfur dioxide emissions are tied to MECO's Kahului and Maalaea power plants, the EPA estimates the utility's impact will fade by mid-2018.
The EPA's plan took into account the state's Clean Energy Initiative, which has the goal of meeting 70 percent of Hawaii's energy needs through energy efficiency and renewable energy sources by 2030.
"Under this scenario, the Kahului power plant will cease operations by 2018 and Maalaea will operate at a significantly lower capacity factor and/or burn biofuels that contain much less sulfur than their current fuel," the plan said.
In the meantime, it noted "Maalaea is downwind of (Haleakala) and its (sulfur dioxide) emissions are not expected to impact visibility at Haleakala. Prevailing winds should also transport emissions from Kahului away from Haleakala."
"Clearly, volcanic emissions dominate statewide emissions and far exceed any resulting from utility operations," HECO spokesman Darren Pai said in response to the proposed plan. "We are pleased that the EPA has recognized the strides Maui Electric has made in increasing the use of clean energy, with more than 17 percent of electricity from renewable sources last year, and the continuing positive impact these ongoing efforts will have on Maui's environment."
An EPA analysis found organic carbon was the next largest pollutant on Maui, contributing 10 percent to the "visibility degradation" at a monitoring site just outside Haleakala National Park. Sources of organic carbon, the EPA said, include agricultural burning and oil combustion.
The plan noted that fire emissions come from crop waste burning of more than 30,000 acres of sugar cane cultivated on Maui. But, the EPA said restricting agricultural burning is not necessary at this time.
"While there is no smoke management plan as such, widespread and persistent haze conditions are used as a criterion for establishment of a 'no-burn' period by (the Hawaii Department of Health)," the EPA plan said. "Given our focus on (sulfur dioxide) as the dominant visibility-impairing pollutant for this implementation period, and our finding that there is no evidence of agricultural burning contributing to haze at (the park areas), we propose to determine that no further controls on agricultural burning . . . are reasonable at this time," the plan said.
Bowie of Maui Tomorrow challenged those findings in written comments to the EPA.
"Cane burning produces billowing clouds of smoke laden with toxins and fine particulates. The smoke blots out the sky and the natural vistas," Bowie said. "We don't doubt that a major contributor to visibility impairment at Haleakala is vog, laden with sulfates and other pollutants brought by Kona winds . . . but there is no doubt that, as the National Park Service has clearly stated, 'sugar cane processing facilities and field burning can affect air quality and visibility (in the park),' '' she said, citing the park's website.
Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. disagrees.
"There is no evidence of agricultural burning contributing to the haze in Hawaii's national parks and additional controls on sugar cane burning, beyond the existing agricultural burn permit program, are unwarranted," Sean O'Keefe, director of environmental affairs for HC&S parent company Alexander & Baldwin, wrote in testimony for the public hearing on the plan last week in Kahului.
While reforms for Maui's utility are not called for in the report, the EPA plans to impose a cap on emissions at three Big Island utility plants starting Jan. 1, 2018.
The plan proposes an annual 3,550-ton cap on sulfur dioxide emissions from Hawaii Electric Light Co.'s oil-fired burners at its Kanoelehua Hill generating station, Shipman power plant and Puna power plant.
"We propose that this control measure . . . will ensure that reasonable progress is made during this first planning period toward the national goal of no anthropogenic (or man-made) visibility impairment by 2064 at Hawaii's two (national park areas)," the plan said.
Pai said the utility is still evaluating its options to comply with the proposed cap. He noted that more than 40 percent of the Big Island's electricity needs last year were met with renewable energy.
"However, we cannot reduce haze from natural sources like volcanic eruptions," Pai said. "As proposed, the federal plan may require the addition of control technologies that may not necessarily improve visibility at the national parks, while placing an undue cost burden on our customers."
To view the proposed Hawaii Regional Haze Federal Implementation Plan online, go to the website www.epa.gov/region9/air/actions/hawaii.html. To submit online comments on the plan, go to the website www.regulations. gov, reference Docket ID No. EPA-R09-OAR-2012-0345.
For more information, call the EPA's Region 9 Air Planning Office at (415) 947-4107.
* Nanea Kalani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.