The last bastion of Pa‘akai, traditional Hawaiian salt-making, is threatened by growth of helicopter operations at Port Allen Airport, which is adjacent to the salt ponds and opened in the 1920s. Pa‘akai is hand-made unprocessed salt, exceptionally rich in ocean minerals and renowned by Hawaiians for health, healing and spiritual properties. From the 1800s into the twentieth century salt making took place on all the Hawaiian Islands as documented by land records and newspapers. Yet over time most of the lands used for salt making were lost to industrialization or sold. Hanapepe salt, made near the southern coast of Kauai island, is the only remaining traditionally cultivated salt in Hawaii. It is made in salt beds by highly skilled practitioners, all of whom belong to over 20 families who have passed the craft on through the generations and care for as well as cultivate the salt ponds. Hanapepe salt is not a commercial product; tradition dictates that it cannot be sold, it must only be gifted or in some cases bartered. Maverick Helicopters operates a number of facilities at Port Allen Airport, which were constructed without the requisite permits. A Special Management Area Permit issued by Kauai County in 2005 required the removal of all temporary structures, including sheds and shipping containers, associated with helicopter operations. This requirement was never complied with. Then in June 2019 the company sought permits after the fact for its activities. The firm denies that its activities have negative impacts on salt making. But the practitioners say dust and noise from airport operations, particularly helicopters, do adversely affect salt-making. Concerns over the helicopter operations are not just about loss of resources but also about loss of practice. Hanapepe salt ponds are one of the important cultural sites in Hawaii, an enduring site of traditional teaching. The matter was scheduled to go before the Kauai Planning Commission and salt-making practitioners worked to galvanize community members to oppose Maverick Helicopters’ applications for permits.
Ku‘ulei Santos, vice-president of the salt makers’ group Hui Hana Pa‘akai, created an online petition for the public to register support of opposition to the permit applications. The petition stated that close proximity of Port Allen Airport to the salt making, with its potential contribution to pollution, noise and chemical runoff had been a longstanding concern for Pa‘akai practitioners. The petition was accompanied by a video made by Ku‘ulei Santos in which she explains the traditional salt farming techniques that her and other families have practiced for decades. Maverick Helicopters provides tourism flights over Kauai Island and its application for after the fact permits also sought permission to allow them to make modifications to their facility and expand operations. The Kauai Planning Commission hearing to address the issue, held on 25th June, drew a crowd of about 250 residents showing solidarity with the Hanapepe salt farmers. The hearing lasted for five hours during which about 80 people gave testimony, all speaking against the helicopter company’s permit request. The multitude of concerns raised included airport operations’ contribution to air and noise pollution and drawing excessive vehicle traffic to the area. The petition in support of the salt makers, requesting that the commissioners hold a contested case hearing before deciding whether to grant the permit to Maverick Helicopters, had by this stage garnered over 21,000 signatures from all over the world. This request was granted at the end of the hearing and the Planning Director expressed “strong agreement” with the petitioners’ request for intervention. The Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve the petitioners’ intervenor status and now has to schedule further hearings to resolve the dispute, a process that is expected to take several months or even years to complete. A video shows some excerpts of speakers at the hearing, from hours of emotional testimony. People spoke of the salt-making tradition being at risk of dying out and there being little left for Pa‘akai practitioners to pass on to their children and grandchildren, the impact of being flown over by helicopters, sand coming onto the salt beds and both the quality and quantity of salt being affected so that the quantities of salt that could be given away had greatly reduced. Supporters of the salt farmers also described the salt beds, carrying the legacy of 22 families perpetuating the traditions, as a ‘jewel” and a “living museum”. Ku‘ulei Santos’ father, Frank Santos, who has worked at the salt beds for 65 years, spoke of how he was taught to respect and perpetuate the culture. Testimony submitted by the Chief Executive of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) highlights the cultural significance of the Pa‘akai salt ponds and concerns regarding constitutional obligations to protect the traditional and customary rights of Native Hawaiians. Threats of particulate pollution and chemical run-off from Port Allen Airport were of particular concern to Pa‘akai practitioners wishing to maintain the quality and safety of the salt. Proposed expansion of the facility infers continued and potentially expanded helicopter operations that would upend compromises made with the airport to mitigate negative impacts and risk new and increased impacts from a higher volume of airport activities. The OHA testimony stated that salt-making practitioners have raised concerns about possible impacts from existing and expanded helicopter operations for years, arguing that as Maverick Helicopters’ permit application provided no information addressing these long-standing concerns, there is no basis for Planning Commission to begin assessment of potential impacts on Native Hawaiian traditional and customary practices. Possible measures to ameliorate harmful impacts of helicopter operations could include commitments to work with the Department of Transport and Port Allen Airport operators to minimize ongoing and future dust flow and other sources of contamination that could affect the nearby salt ponds.