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A fight for rights

LIHUE — While growing up in the middle of Kapaa, Ben Kuhaulua says he can still remember the days when he and his family would use firewood to cook kalua pig almost every weekend.

It’s a tradition that, Kuhaulua said, he continues to pass down to his 18 grandchildren, who stand by his side as he teaches them what an imu (traditional earthen fire pit) is, how to set it, and what is used.

He worries, however, that a Kauai County Council bill to declare certain types of air pollution a public nuisance could change all of that. 

“History shows that, when you guys pass something, it snowballs into something else and something else,” Kuhaulua told the seven-member board on Wednesday during a standing-room only hearing on Bill 2573. “Who is here to help me so it doesn’t snowball? I want to know who I need to see to protect my rights as one Hawaiian.” 

Tempers flared during the Wednesday meeting, where nearly three dozen people testified about how the bill, if passed, could impact their lives. 

Bill supporters say county legislation is needed to help protect some residents who have experienced adverse health conditions because of smoke in their homes and have nowhere to turn for relief.

Opponents say the current version of the bill will erode the island’s rural lifestyle and curtail traditional cultural practices, including pulehu (cooking over an open flame) or kalua (cooking with an imu, or earthen fire pit). 

As it is written, the bill would make it illegal and a public nuisance for “any person, firm, or corporation in the County of Kauai to intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly cause, permit, or allow to escape into the open air” smoke, soot, poisonous gases, dirt, dust or debris of any kind that can injure a person’s health or damage property.

The pollutants covered under the bill must come from “any smokestack, chimney, flue or incinerator, or any opening of any building, or from any smoldering or open fires.”

Penalties for violating the proposed law include a maximum $1,000 fine, a maximum 30-day jail term, or both.

Councilman Gary Hooser, who introduced the bill last month, said it’s based on an existing County of Maui law and will be amended “to eliminate any possibility of outdoor cooking and limit it to chimneys in neighborhoods.”

“So, if you have a chimney in a neighborhood where people live close to each other and you’re making your neighbor sick, it’s against the law,” Hooser explained. “That’s the intent and that was always the intent.” 

Kilauea resident Lorraine Newman said smoke from a nearby home likely caused her eyes to burn continuously for about three days in December. 

Newman said she tried to talk with a neighbor who smokes meat but said it didn’t end well.  

“It’s like being next to a bonfire,” Newman said. “When I’m next to a bonfire, I can choose to move over to the other side, but I was in my home, it was evening, it was dark out, and it was freezing. I have no legal right and he does, and I think that’s what this is about. I was in my home and couldn’t move away from the smoke.” 

Wailua resident Ann Leighton agreed. 

“I don’t want to see anything bad happen, but I see this bill as offering an opportunity for people to be good neighbors, and it offers an opportunity for those who are impacted by those who choose not to be good neighbors,” Leighton said. “It doesn’t seem to ban anything any more than the barking dog ordinance seeks to ban dog ownership.” 

Not everyone sees it that way. 

Lihue resident Thomas Oi said the wording of the proposed bill is too broad and could adversely impact religious and cultural practices, including the burning of incense sticks during Buddhist ceremonies.   

“I’ve lived here for years and I see our lifestyle eroding to bills like this,” Oi said. “Think about the past and think about the people of Kauai and our lifestyle. The main point is: You guys need to think about the culture, religion and lifestyle of Kauai first instead of bringing these bills up.” 

Keith Robinson, who co-manages Niihau with his brother, Bruce Robinson, said they are concerned about the law and asked that Niihau residents be exempt from it, if the Kauai County Council chooses to pass it.

“Niihau is a rural island inhabited by native Hawaiians, and the use of wood fires for all sorts of purposes, such as cooking, water heating and trash disposal, etc., has been a traditional cultural practice ever since ancient times,” Robinson said. “If this proposed law is passed and is enforced against natives of Niihau, it would seriously and adversely impact Niihau’s entire Hawaiian community. It would also become a classic case of a larger island forcing its laws and cultural values on a smaller island.”

Darin Moriki, county government reporter, can be reached at 245-0428 or dmoriki@thegardenisland.com.

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