Between 1879 and 1948, Waiākea Mill Company conducted mill operations at Waiākea Pond. Bagasse – a by-product of sugarcane – became a secondary industry, first as a fuel for the mills’ boilers, then as the main ingredient for a wallboard product.
As commercial fuel oils became increasingly available in the late 1920s, the use of bagasse as a fuel declined. This byproduct of production was then creatively used to manufacture a wallboard product for construction.
In 1929, Hawaiian Cellulose Ltd, a subsidiary of the Waiākea Mill Company applied for a patent for the manufacture of it. (County of Hawai‘i)
On May 23, 1930, “The leading plantation agencies and a group of business men organise a $2,250,000 corporation for the manufacture of wallboard and other universally used bagasse fiber products. The name chosen was the Hawaiian Cane Products, Limited.” (The Friend, June 1930)
Later that year, the directors of the company “authorized the purchase of a one-hundred-ton daily capacity plant for the manufacture of insulating board from bagasse.” (The Friend, October, 1930) (It ended up costing $2.5-million.)
April 27, 1932, the company’s Hilo plant (at Waiākea, adjoining Wailoa Pond) was opened; the company emphasized “the overseas distribution for which the industry aims.” (The Friend, June 1, 1932) (By 1934, “five carloads were shipped … to Manchuria.” (Friend, July 1, 1934))
Canec was originally the brand name for pressed fiber board made by Hawaiian Cane Products, Ltd., but it has become commonly used to refer to all pressed board of this type.
It was formed into sheets similar in size to drywall, as well as other sizes for use as ceiling and wallboard. Canec was used for interior ceilings and walls in many residential and commercial structures throughout the state of Hawai‘i. (DOH)
Reportedly, Charles William Mason, a Scotsman who ended up in Olaʻa on the Island of Hawai‘i in 1919, was the inventor of Canec. Mason became the superintendent of Hawaiian Cane Products Company, Ltd., located in Hilo near the site of the Waiākea Mill Company. (Johnston)
The use of canec as a building material in Hawai‘i gradually expanded during the 1930s, but greatly accelerated after World War II when construction volume rapidly increased.
It was estimated that from the twelve plantations contributing bagasse to the canec plant, one million tons of bagasse would be available for the production of wallboard.
Hawaiian Cane Products was sold to the Flintkote Company in 1948. That year, the Hilo plant manufactured 120,000,000-square feet of canec panels; from 1945 to 1955; the majority of the housing in the Islands featured cane walls and/or ceilings. (HHF)
The original patent for canec wallboard called for the bagasse to be mixed with hydrated lime, caustic soda, soda ash and similar chemicals to digest fiberous portions of the trash. (Bernard)
It was treated with inorganic arsenic compounds to discourage mildew and insects. In addition, the wallboard was treated against termites with calcium arsenate and arsenic, and finally hydrosulfate was added to ‘set the size,’ inhibit the absorption of water and harden the board. (Bernard)
The canec plant discharged its waste through a sewer pipe that emptied into the water at the point where the pond flows into Wailoa River.
A NOAA report says, “An estimated 558-tons of arsenic compounds were released into the Hilo Bay estuary through this sewer line during the operational history of the plant.” (EH)
As was disclosed to the public in 1973, the canec plant had “discharged approximately 3.5-mgd of waste water into the Wailoa estuary for 29-years”.
This waste water included both toxic and lethal chemicals such as arsenic, hydrated line, hydrosulfate, ethyl silicate, hydrosulfate, calcium, arsenate and arsenic acid. (Bernard)
Arsenic concentrations in the sediments of Hilo Bay have been found to be as high as 6,370-ppm, approximately 34 times higher than anywhere else in the state (Department of Health.) (Hallacher)
Some suggest the canec plant was destroyed by the May 23, 1960 tsunami that devastated Hilo; actually, a fire destroyed the canec plant a month earlier (April 3, 1960.)
In 1971, the hotel complex known now as Waiākea Villas was built on the canec plant site (the adjacent Waiākea plant millpond was made part of Wailoa River State Park.)
“Although elevated in comparison to natural background, inorganic arsenic in canec material does not pose exposure or potential health concerns for building residents or workers, provided that the canec is in good condition and not rotting or ‘powdering away.’”
“No health effects caused by short time (acute) exposure to high levels of arsenic in canec, or to lower concentrations for a long time (chronic exposure) have been reported to HDOH.”
“However, daily exposure to very high levels of inorganic arsenic over many years can result in various health effects, including an increased risk of cancer. As a result, exposure to deteriorating canec should be minimized.” (Department of Health)