The future of traditional Hawaiian salt making hangs in the balance. Hanapepe salt makers on Kauai are battling with neighboring Maverick Helicopters over an unpermitted restroom and cesspool built next to the salt ponds.

The salt ponds at Hanapepe are one of the last places in the world where paakai, or salt, is produced traditionally. Even though, Kauai county has ordered Maverick Helicopters to remove the illegal structure and pay fines, nothing has changed according to the salt makers.

Cultivating paakai (or salt) is a Hawaiian tradition that goes back thousands of years. Today, the future of the practice is uncertain.

“It’s so heartbreaking and then to have to go and prove your worth…its hawaiian salt, its like hawaiian gold,” said Ku’ulei Santos, the vice president of the Hui for Pa’akai.

Santos and her ohana have been producing the highly prized salt in Hanapepe for generations. The practice is a protected traditional, custom.

They don’t even sell it. It’s given away.

Santos said they’ve been battling outside forces for decades as businesses encroach on the ponds more and more each year. Maverick Helicopter moved in recently creating more problems.

“They went and dug a hole and installed a septic system, with who knows what they installed. Who knows what type. Normally department of health will advise you…they just went and dug a hole and made a bathroom and called it a day,” Santos said.

They did it without any permits. In a letter dated September 3, 2019, Kauai council member Luke Evslin confirmed that Keith Kawaoka, Deputy director for Environmental Health for the State of Hawaii Department of Health “reports that Wastewater Branch staff conducted a field inspection and determined the existence of a previously utilized, unapproved cesspool for an unpermitted restroom” was located at Burns Field by Smoky Mountain Helicopters, Inc, the lessee for Maverick Helicopters.

Evslin’s letter also stated that “the Wastewater Branch has issued an appropriate citation with a list of requirements for Maverick Helicopters.”

The problem is the cesspool could contaminate the water used in making the salt.

“The way Hawaiian salt is made, water travels underground into our wells, we take that and we move it into beds and that’s where it crystalizes and forms paakai,” Santos explained.

Santos said they thought they’d won when the planning department sent Maverick Helicopter the notice of violation and ordered them to pay a $10,000 fine.

“That was great news until the helicopter company came back and is appealing.”

In a statement, Kauai planning director Kaaina Hull said:

“On August 5, 2019, I issued a Notice of Violation and Order to Pay Fines to Maverick Helicopters for the construction and use of illegal structures at the Hanapepe Airfield. A Special Management Area permit and its accompanying documentation and studies are necessary prior to construction of such structures to ensure there are no negative impacts to the surrounding area, including the salt beds. It is unfortunate that the operator has chosen not to come into compliance with the Notice of Violation and Order, and they continue to maintain these structures illegally; however, they do have the right to appeal my decision, and this appeal is being forwarded to the Planning Commission.”

In addition to the cesspool, Maverick also did addition construction on several existing buildings.

“When Maverick moved in, they started to do a bunch of improvements. The bathroom was installed. They created a bigger office trailer, concrete slabs, they put in a bigger fuel tank,” explained Santos.

Summer is their season for pa’akai cultivation, but Santos said they weren’t able to make any this year.

“Are we going to be able to make next year, I’m not sure. I don’t know, but if we don’t stand up and say, enough is enough, we’re not going to protect this one spot that we all enjoy,” Santos said.

“If we continue on this path that will no longer be. For us to be in a place that we cannot protect something that offers so much to so many people, for free is mind-boggling to me.”

Santos said there will be another planning commission meeting on Kauai on October 22. They also have a Facebook page Protect Paakai.