Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Rob Parsons' Talk at Upcountry Sustainability 11/7/11

Rob Parsons, the Environmental Coordinator for Maui County, presented an informative slideshow on top environmental issues several months ago at Upcountry Sustainability's meeting on November 7, 2011. Last year. A full 6+ months ago. I wanted to blog about it earlier, but life kept getting in the way. Or that's my story. There's also a good write-up about Rob's talk by the Maui Weekly

Upcountry Sustainability, by the way, presents some excellent speakers, at least twice a month at the Pukalani Community Center.  I would love for other people who attend meetings to share notes, on the US Facebook page or other public venues. Maui Farmer's Union is another great place to get information on environmental issues affecting Maui residents - it's not just about farming or gardening (plus there's a great potluck). 

Included is a rough transcription of three video clips relating to Rob's slideshow. It's not the full slideshow, so I didn't include information about the problem of the axis deer population.  The transcription is not complete, but helpful for people who don't have video access. 

Video 1 (rough transcription below):

Rob talks about writing the eco column, “The Rob Report” for the Maui Time, which was about doing in depth research and interviews on a lot of environmental topics. …He said it was like going to school on a different issue each week.

Rob mentioned three issues of concern that he recently wrote about, although did not discuss the 3rd topic in his slideshow (at least not the part that I was paying attention to).
1st issue: renewable energy choices
2nd issue: cane burning
3rd issue: injection wells

Rob says some things are proposed and asks how sustainable are they?  Is it the best idea to run a billion dollar undersea cable from one or more islands in Maui County to Oahu to provide them with electricity. Or should each island try to support and live within its own energy needs? It’s a big complicated question.  

This is our existing wind power operation. This is rated at 30 megawatts, and maybe what goes into the system any given day is 12 – 14 megawatts. Until we are assured of smart grid integration for these big renewable energy projects, I think we need to be careful about the choices we make. Here’s a similar example. This was a dedication of a (La’ola sp?) 10 acre installation on Lana’i, January 2008 he believes is rated at 1.2 megawatts. The peak load of Lanai is only about 5 megawatts, so this should be capable of producing 30% of the island’s needs, but it’s not up to 1.2 megawatts yet. adequate battery storage, and if cloud goes over the sun, then it could crash the grid. We’re better at renewable energy but we’re not where we need to be yet.

Here’s another conversation regarding biofuels back on 2007 on Maui, when there was an announcement that we would build the largest biodiesel refinery on Maui. It sounds good – we want to go renewable right? But people started looking at where the seed oil would come from. We could grow it here. If we planted it now, it would take 5 years for a crop to show for it. At the cost of land, water, labor, it’s just about cost prohibitive and would take tens or hundreds of acres, maybe all the ag land in the state to produce enough fuel to run the electricity for our needs. Upon asking the parent utility, Hawaiian Electric, where the feedstock would come from, they said we could import palm oil from South/east Asia. The environmental groups said no, we’re not going to devastate rainforest in another part of the world. End of the story - that refinery was never built. Rob shows a few pics of a protest on Oahu and makes some funny remarks.

2nd video clip (rough transcription below):

Rob: This is the 2nd of environmental issues mentioned in the Maui Time (Weekly?) article back in April.

I continue to get calls on cane burning as I did the first time around.  I don’t know if any of you drove by the harbor last Thursday or Friday – the coal barge was in town. The good news is that cane burning is at the end of its season, then a hiatus from end of November to March. Because the puunene mill generates electricity for Maui electric by burning the leftover cane residue, the bagasse. They have a contract – they have to keep doing that. So in the interim they’ll burn coal, and whatever bagasse they have left. So tons and tons of coal were just brought in, I think they bring in about 100,000 tons of coal a year. We don’t think about that, but that’s yet another impact on the environment. This is just another photo that came my way showing overall impacts of plantation agriculture, the mass tilling of hundreds of acres that we have normal trade winds of 20-25 mph means there’s a lot of fugitive dust. When people are breaking ground to develop a subdivision or hotel, our public works grading ordinance says that if more than 15 acres disturbed or graded at one time, they need dust fencing, waste containment, and can only be tilled after being watered down to minimize fugitive dust. I just looked the State Dept. of Health rules, and there is some language there that’s open to interpretation, but by and large, what’s known as “right to farm” legislation, which allows the plantation to continue the practice which has over the years has probably lost tons and tons of topsoil some of which has landed on Ma’alaea reef, and has impacted that … gave some percents (hard to understand). I posted this on the Maui Clean Air Facebook page a month ago, a quick list that someone sent to me of chemicals used in the plantation. This list is from 2009. I haven’t seen an updated list.

Q: How did you get that list? 

Rob: Someone emailed it to me, and they must have got it from the plantation. But I was curious. When I ran for County Council 4 yrs ago... Information gives people the opportunity to make informed decisions. Some people say they don’t like that and some people say they don’t like that and will do something about it. I feel my role as a public servant is to give that information. Mentions Maui Clean Air Facebook page again.

Video Clip 3 (rough transcription below):

Rob: I also feel that people are more likely to listen and respond if you give them another way of looking at a situation, even if we’ve done it this way for a hundred years. Start the dialogue. I think Mayor Arakawa is a visionary but …[also] a pragmatic thinker and knows there are only so many battles one can fight at any given time. Rob speculates that the mayor’s position to take over the watershed areas of East and West Maui and put them in public hands instead of private hands probably had a hand with his political detractors….

To strengthen our environmental efforts. The mayor has set forth a proposal to the charter commission to increase focus on environmental sustainability.  I think the language is here.  So we’re going to drop this push on getting a name change to “Department of Sustainability and Environmental Management. Rob provides various reasons. I think this can still fit under Dept of Environmental management. There are currently only two divisions: one is solid waste/landfills, the other is sewers/wastewater treatment. The mayor’s proposal would add new language to add more environmental protection and this has been well received by charter commission up to this point. Rob mentions a meeting in November. The charter commission is only chosen every 10 years, so in my mind it’s a once in 10 year it’s a big opportunity to put something on the ballot. They’re going to chose a number of things – like district voting or putting water safety officers under fire instead of parks. The County Charter is like our constitution it provides the framework…. Instead of 1 appointed person who would get switched out every 4 years and may or may have different environmental ideas, would begin to build dedicated staff or possibly a new division in the Department of Environmental Management.

Rob shows a slide of a quote: “We’re not going to make the right decisions while it’s so cheap to make the wrong decisions. And it’s so cheap because we’re not paying the true costs as we go.” - Carl Safina

The Charter Commission has asked the mayor as they have asked every group or individual that comes before them, what will this cost us? What’s the cost? I love the mayor’s response. Any initiative that the county has comes with a price tag. But the reality is we pay a lot more later if we don’t do it sooner. 

Q & A session following the slideshow:

Q &A Video clip 1 (rough transcription, sections unclear):

Someone asks Rob about renewable energy.
Q. On Kauai isn’t there a bunch of land being used for renewable energy? (unclear, hard to understand)..
I believe that’s correct as well but don’t know the particulars of the top of my head.

Q: (hard to understand)…We can pressure federal government to lessen dependence on oil and focus on renewable energy - what other energy sources are being considered? Is bio-char one of them?

Rob. Is bio-char one of them? Bio-char – we’ve had a conversation about it, it has a lot of promise – a way of burning plant residue whether coconut husks or fronds or more leafy, woody material in a low oxygen situation that produces something similar in chemical composition to charcoal…When …applied to the soil, it acts as a catalyst for all kinds of beneficial soil organisms. Did I do okay? There was talk of using the Old Maui High School facility to do a demonstration or production system there. I think it shows promise. The other part of your question Was what renewable energy systems…?

Q. I think it makes sense… HC &S is the largest landholder in the state of Hawaii and they just got a grant from the federal government. (hard to understand) What is the renewable energy source they are doing?

Rob. The funding they got I think is in the neighborhood of $4 or 5 million dollars a year and for the next four years I believe and is through the Department of Defense. Because the DOD uses a lot of energy for planes and boats and bases around the island and the world. The DOD is very interested in renewable energy and is doing a lot of work on Oahu with solar and other systems.

(Audience comments are hard to understand) Are they protecting our local interest, but they’re not.

Rob: I want to talk to the plantation about the outlook, the logical outcome for this – growing energy cane for ethanol production. There’s a lot of unanswered questions. The whole idea of biofuels research raises questions – do we use land for growing food or for fuel, or just to run the plantations’ fleet of vehicles, do we offset MECO’s energy production by doing bio diesel for them. Remember they’re burning about a million gallons a week. How are we going to produce anywhere near that? In conversation with Kelly king of pacific biodiesel, she strongly thinks whatever energy we produce should go to transportation sector rather than the energy production sector, since we  have a lot of other good resources for energy production. One strong area I think is still geothermal  -  closed loop system – low emissions, etc.

Comment from audience (unclear).

Rob: The county stands. Do/did you participate at all in the recent county discussion on the proposed resolution to the state association of counties? There’s a lot of discussion… it’s taking a step in the right direction. What you need to know about GMO’s is it’s by far the most lucrative agricultural commodity in the state of HI and has been the last 5 years, growing about 20% rate a year in revenues and in 2010 the seed industry made about 220 million on about 6000 acres and compare that to HC & S revenue, they had an up year last year and that’s on 35,000 acres. In conversations with the mayor, he said I don’t think we’re going to eliminate gmo’s, not on a county level under his jurisdiction. Which could go through the County Council, the legislative branch, or the state legislature which has put a moratorium on GMO taro. What the mayor did say, I think we can intelligently limit its footprint and limit growth in other areas we want to have other kinds of agriculture and not have pollen drift from here to there. We can do this in our community planning process – the Maui County Plan. Say this is the growing area for vegetables and other commodities and no GMO seed grown in these other areas. Rob asks Courtney Bruch for confirmation: “Isn’t that what you got out of the mayor’s conversation?” Courtney affirms this, “From what I heard this is one of his suggestions…” and talks about other concerns.

Q & A session 2 (rough transcription):

Rob mid-sentence: Before WWII, there’s some structures with cane ceilings. The cane fiber still holds up to this day. Ok, there’s some formaldehyde and .yet. .it had the potential to provide a local building material where we had all our building materials except sand and gravel are imported. Like lumber, pressboard, gypsum board… It was an idea that I thought was a good idea at the time. It had some problems….Invested in the wrong kind of equipment. It didn’t work out.

Q: I have 2 questions : the charter commission when will that be voted on?

Rob: They have two more public meetings and they are deliberating on proposals that have already come to them. They are not going to come up with any new resolutions at this late time. There is a list on the county website. They will go on the ballot next year. It’s an opportunity for the voters to say do we support more environmental protection and sustainability as it’s proposed  here on my voter’s ballot or not. In 2006, there was a proposal – shall weto split the dept of public works and environmental management into two separate departments, and the voters said yes. The rationale was this is a huge department… just one director for five different divisions – it was just too unwieldy. …It’ll be on next year’s ballot. They meet in the planning conference room.

Q: My other question was how do we utilize HC&S’s land? One of my thoughts – is that going to benefit the public to have our electric bill go down? It’s great to replace fossil fuels, but if it’s not getting our electric to go down…what’s the benefit? The wind farm has been up for 4 years and my electric bill hasn’t gone down. I think the geothermal might be something …

Rob: Ultimately the matters of electric rates are with the public utility commission, and there can be some say from advocates from this administration. There are 3 people appointed by the governor hearing the dockets.  When a power provider comes in and works with the… it’s a big long involved process. There are opportunities for public intervention and discussion. Who’s next?

Q. One of the reasons that they keep the land is water rights… to grow sugar cane. If they did something like solar, would they lose their rights? Would they be motivated to do that? …. (more)

Rob: those are good questions, and I won’t attempt to answer them for them. Whatever we come up with, it’s got to be a win-win for the community and economically viable....

Q & A Video Clip 3 (rough transcription):
(11 Minute segment)

Q: Some laws in the county books are actually anti-sustainability. Unless you’re producing $35,000/yr on an ag lot, you’re not farming.  Gardening doesn’t count towards agriculture. Unless you’re crops are in rows, it’s not agriculture. These are leftovers from the plantation days. Is there any hope of getting them off the books?  People have been complaining for decades.

Rob: I’m not gonna say there’s no hope. So I’m going to say, yes, there’s hope. That’s where the challenge lies. Rob jokes here. Kenneth knows what it’s like to have a myriad of issues to deal with and we should have more time for initiatives.  I would love to see smorgasbord of initiatives to support local ag opportunities. The county has supported ag for a long, long time, but…Those of you who have been involved with Maui Farmer’s Union, etc. know there’s some gaps. We probably need it all. If we’re gonna achieve sustainability, we’re gonna need it all.

(portions unclear): As follow up to this question … Positive inroads towards changing that… They  haven’t been able to enforce it since they don’t have money to enforce it. Have there been any inroads to make that not an issue of legality? That’s gotta happen through the legislative process. Given what we hope to achieve for local food production, from small backyard level to small farm. Need to work w/ county council members and go to people, work with all of them, collaborate and ask for things… to support ground level sustainability.

Melanie: In two weeks, we’re going to talk about ways to influence the state legislature. We’re trying to get Patrick to teach an ordinance writing workshop, to create the language that changes the law. That’s really what the county council members are asking for…for us to write the language.

Q from audience: My main reason for coming tonight was the idea – have the … (hard to understand).  The biggest landowner being the plantation… unless there’s some.
Independent think tank that combines sustainable technology with cutting edge economic science to fuse those things together – without that…

Rob: I wrote an article a couple of years ago, called Slow Burn… reporting on …the cyclical community debate that occurs. Things heated up in the month of October. We had cane burning on a lot of days with variable winds or no winds and the cane smoke went up and came right down. My phone started ringing and people were sending me pictures, wondering how can this possibly be that they are allowed to burn on a day like this.  I walked across the street a few weeks ago, talked to the gentlemen in the state dept of health, Clean Air branch, he’s the environmental officer there and he has discretion on saying do we burn today or not burn today. Started looking closely into Dept. of Health recommendations. This happens.

Q from audience: Is that Blake? Blake Shige (sp?) –

Rob: Yes, people that contact my office, I tell them they can talk with the main guy. Or I talk with people who talk with Blake and want to go over… yes, this will just repeat itself.

Rob: I would tend to agree with you… one idea that I have is to host a community forum that brings people together without pointing fingers, my kids are home sick, coughing with asthma. I’ve heard it all. I think they have too. Bring the brightest minds together. Look at the opportunities, the obstacles, their outlook for the next two years, five years, ten years… and see what we can collectively identify that would be win-win solutions.

Comment from audience: In terms of .. (hard to understand) something about having the land benefit… soil…

Rob: (nods)… I also scheduled a meeting today with our energy commissioner and to talk with the plantation manager and their renewable energy guy… that will happen sometime soon… ask them we’re they are at. They are operating at some of the sunniest and windiest places on the island – there are some opportunities.

Q: How?

Rob: There’s language in the county charter. Mauicounty.gov – left hand column you can click on the county charter. Chapter 16 or so – there’s a prescribed process. You’ve gotta go in with the understanding that no one has brought in an initiative forward with the process as it’s now constructed. Need 20% signatures of people who voted in the last presidential election. That’s a lot. About 12,000 signatures. Always need more, the county clerk office will go in and if the address they wrote down doesn’t correspond to the one on file with the county, they’ll throw out the signature.

Melanie asks if Rob is interested in joining a sustainable forum to discuss – and to come and not just bad mouth them. Who should be on a panel for this?
By the way, if you're still reading this, I have been in touch with Rob Parsons since his November presentation, and he has been supportive of spreading this information. 


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