Sugar mills to be razed

LIHU‘E — The future doesn’t look sweet for Kekaha and Lihu‘e sugar mills. The asbestos-laden ghosts of a bygone plantation era are slated for destruction, more than a decade after the end of their productive lives.

“After extensive study and costly efforts to preserve the structures, consultants found many of these structures are severely compromised due to corrosion,” the mills’ co-owner Lynn McCrory, president of PAHIO Development, wrote in a letter to the community. The letter concludes that the deterioration of the structures combined with asbestos-removal requirements “leave no alternative to their demolition.”

Following asbestos removal by NCM Contracting Group, deconstruction of the mills will begin 10 days after the county approves land use and demolition permits.

The group expects to file the permit requests “shortly,” according to the letter, which was distributed at community outreach meetings last week.

Some 30 people gathered at both the Kekaha Neighborhood Center meeting on Sept. 26 and the War Memorial Convention Hall meeting Wednesday to hear a presentation on PAHIO’s plans.

“It’s time to put one of our treasures to rest,” said Althea Kaohi, a former Hanapepe librarian and storyteller who delivered the blessing that opened the Kekaha meeting.

McCrory introduced key project personnel, including Bill Cutler, a geologist and environmental engineer who has been a project consultant for the mills during the past six years, and Earl Smith, second consultant.

PAHIO contracted Jason Jones, CEO of Sterling Systems Environmental Services of Long Lake, Minn., as asbestos and demolition consultant on the project.

Alex Cates, branch manager of NCM Contracting Group, also provided information about abatement and the razing of the two sites.

Double bagging

and tagging

Asbestos, used as insulation and as a fire-retardant building material up until the 1980s, is prevalent throughout the mills, Jones said. It’s in the grout of bricks and surrounding equipment, pipes and walls.  

“We used to mix asbestos with water in buckets and slather it on the walls and pipes,” said Alfred Ruiz, a former Kekaha Mill worker of 35 years who attended the Kekaha meeting. “As long as it stayed wet, there was no problem. It couldn’t get airborne.”

Over the years, the asbestos has become friable, meaning is has begun to crumble and is more likely to become airborne.

Jones said the grout is failing and just one hurricane away from becoming a disaster.

The Department of Health has approved the asbestos abatement permits.

Jones said mitigation involves building a negative-air decontamination bubble around the worksite, one section at a time.

Before workers enter the area, they are suited up in protective gear and before they leave, they enter a decontamination shower.

The work within the bubble involves wetting, double bagging and tagging asbestos for removal. Outside the bubble, air sampling will occur within 10 feet of the worksite to screen for contamination.

Upon removal, the asbestos is placed on a barge within 24 hours and shipped to O‘ahu, where it will be disposed of at an authorized landfill facility, Jones said.

“The work is going to be ongoing for about a four-and-a-half-month period, during normal business hours,” Cates said. “I guarantee we will have a lot of monitoring and everything will be sealed.”

A third-party environmental group and multiple divisions of DOH will be monitoring the operation, he added.

After the sites are certified clean of asbestos, demolition can begin.

‘Unsightly and unsafe’

Most of the mills’ structures contain significant asbestos insulation, which cannot be effectively mitigated without removal of the buildings, Jones said. Many mill parts are physically part of the mills’ structures, meaning they cannot be removed without weakening the remaining portions of the metal sheds.

McCrory said the initial goal was to remove the equipment from the mill and to save the structures for re-use as a museum or landmark. What they found was that the structure was built from the bottom up and can’t be preserved.

“Everything is welded together and there is no way to take out equipment without taking the building down,” she said.

The final years of the sugar industry were economically tough and the mills’ maintenance was minimal, she said. After years of disuse and exposure to the elements, it has become a dangerous situation.

“We shouldn’t have kids in the mill and running around,” she added, noting the graffiti throughout the mills.

“It is unsightly and unsafe and it’s best to get it out of the way for something new,” Jones said.

The mills’ metal structures will be removed and either sold to Hyundai in Japan or shipped to China, Cates said.

Vertical concrete will be ground down and recycled. Horizontal concrete, such as foundations, will stay in place because they “don’t know what is underneath.” The mills’ smoke stacks will be removed as well.

Jan TenBruggencate, author of the book “Lihu‘e Mill” that documents the 150-year history of sugar processing along the Nawiliwili Stream, said historic photos show new stacks were built about every 50 years and that the current stacks are not in a condition for saving.

He said that one stack fell onto a structure in the last hurricane.

Demolition permits will not require a review or hearing by the Planning Commission, only the director’s approval.

“The demo permit and land use permit ensure no water is discharged into the sewer system,” Jones said. “Best management practices require either rolls of fiber or earth berms to redirect water from the storm systems.”

Demolition approval has been obtained from state and county historic groups, McCrory said.

The industrial permits required are different than with residential, she added, and because Lihu‘e Mill dates back to 1935 and Kekaha Mill back to the 1930s and ’40s, Hawai’i Historic Preservation documentation was required, including an Historic American Buildings survey.

Community concerns

At the Kekaha meeting, community members expressed gratitude for PAHIO’s willingness to take on the task of removing the asbestos, many agreeing “the mill needs to come down.”

Some community members, including Mary Jean Buza-Sims, president of E Ola Mau Na Leo O Kekaha community action group, and a teacher at a nearby school, said they want to be informed of what’s happening along the way.

“Those who left the mill in such a condition should be cited,” Buza-Sims said.

“I commend you for taking it on to clean this up, but social negligence can’t occur … We do want to work with you and want to do it pono. We have a lot of keiki here. We want it cleaned up right.”

Jones said NCM will be posting an informational sign outside of the mill with contact information and the address of a website that will provide daily updates on activities and progress.

E Ola Mau Na Leo O Kekaha staged a demonstration at the mill in May, during which community members voiced concerns about the lack of precautions they were witnessing during the initial clean-up of the site involving scrap metal and debris removal.

Participants said they were not being informed about activities at the site, which is highly toxic and in close proximity to schools and neighborhoods.

The initial firm contracted for the work, Kaua‘i Industries, has since been dismissed and replaced, McCrory said, citing displeasure with the way it handled community concerns.

“We’ll answer questions,” Jones said. “We’ll try to work with the community. We understand it’s right in your backyard. You will see the work we’ll be doing, the care we take and you’ll come to trust us.”

Cates said NCM is willing to have as many community outreach meetings as necessary to ensure questions are being answered and concerns addressed.

A community member at the Lihu‘e meeting asked if the water used to wet down the asbestos-covered structures would run off the immediate site.

Cates replied that during abatement the asbestos fibers soak up the water and it all gets shoveled up, leaving very little residual water. They also use specialized, charcoal filtering socks to catch and route water to contained areas with buffer systems to control runoff from rain to keep silt from the site from running into the stream.

Cheryl Lovell-Obatake, a Nawiliwili area resident, said she lives near where the stream enters the bay and is concerned about wastewater. The reply was that state and federal regulatory agencies are there to protect the public.

The asbestos abatement and other permits issued mean that inspectors have the right to be on site at all times.

Cates said his company has an impeccable record with these types of projects and that this is a medium-size job. He pledged to keep the public informed and to get information out to the community.

Another question had to do with ensuring the site contamination was clean throughout the process. Cates said they prepare to capture storm water and control dust from vehicles going in and out of the site, to include shutting down operations on high-wind days.

Dr. Carl Berg of Surfrider Foundation expressed concern of more than a century of highly toxic mercury and pesticides making their way from the mills into streams and bays and impacting sustenance fishing.

He wanted assurance that the clean-up, re-landscaping and rebuilding process would not continue polluting streams, the watershed and the bay.

Berg said his concern is that contractors set up everything according to the permit, but that it is not maintained and pollution eventually begins contaminating the environment. He added that climate change and 100-year events happen every couple of years and that projects must now prepare for the worst.

Cates replied that the history of the site is beyond the scope of what they were hired to do. They are there to abate the asbestos and deconstruct the site. In the course of that work, they manage pollution through a system of procedures, he said.

Cutler said the permit requires a primary concern of sediment and silt runoff to the extent that it does not make its way to streams and discharge in the ocean where it could damage reefs and the marine ecosystem.

One guest wanted to know if the companies had liability insurance.

The reply was that they were bondable and insurable to $100 million.

 They expect to have 35 to 40 local employees and another 30 or so during key phases. McCrory decline to disclose the cost of the projects.

One guest did not understand why all this money was spent on the land and that it was being cleaned up for its own sake and not for a buyer or a proposed use.

McCrory said that this is about moving forward and cleaning up the site and then in one or two years they might have an idea or a buyer.

Ron Sakoda said after the meeting that he was impressed with the openness and candor that the project leaders were sharing.

He said there is not usually a public forum for a site cleanup, and said it might be that without a development in the works there is no overlapping of the permit process.

Future plans

McCrory said there are no immediate plans for the sites after demolition. The properties were purchased in 2007 and went through an environmental assessment to determine what would be required for a project.

The contractors expect the permitting process to allow them to begin work in late October or early November. It might take as long as December to start if there are delays.

The Kekaha site will come down first followed by the Lihu‘e mill.

They expect each mill to take about four to five months from start to finish.

Cates said it’s not a fun job to take down structures that have played such an important part in community history but that it is the right thing and the responsible thing that a good person would do. The return is that it is good in the long run.

There will be a Hawaiian blessing of the Kekaha mill today and of the Lihu‘e mill Wednesday.

• Vanessa Van Voorhis, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or by e-mailing

• Tom LaVenture, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or tlaventure@


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