Vog on Hawaii's Big Island Leads to Disaster Declaration

The federal government on Wednesday approved a disaster declaration to cover the losses Big Island farmers have suffered as a result of vog, or volcanic smog, from Kilauea.

The move will allow Big Island farmers to apply for low-interest emergency loans, U.S. Sens. Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye said in separate news releases. Eligible producers may borrow up to 100 percent of actual production or physical losses up to $500,000.

Kilauea has long emitted sulfur dioxide, which forms vog when mixed with dust and sunlight. But in March, the volcano's sulfur dioxide emissions grew dramatically when a new vent opened near the summit at Halemaumau crater.

The vog burns and dries plants, particularly protea and other flowers.

Farms in the Kau communities of Hawaiian Ocean View Estates, Pahala, Naalehu have experienced the most damage. All are downwind of the new Halemaumau vent.

Jesse Broder Van Dyke, an Akaka spokesman, said he wasn't sure how long it would take for U.S. Department of Agriculture to start making low-interest loans.

Tony Bayaoa, whose protea farm in Hawaiian Ocean View Estates has been wrecked by the vog, is anxious for the aid to begin flowing. She said some of her neighbors have already put their farms up for sale.

The 2008 Farm Bill makes vog-affected farmers eligible for additional federal disaster aid, Broder Van Dyke said. This is a new program, however, so it's expected to take longer for the assistance to reach farmers.

The Farm Service Agency in Washington D.C., which administers such loan programs, did not return a phone call seeking comment after hours on Wednesday.

A recent survey of protea farmers conducted by the University of Hawaii showed eight farms on the Big Island expect to lose more than $360,000 in sales this year because of vog.

Ten farms reported losing almost $550,000 since March, including lost production and the cost of replacing dead plants.

The survey said 94 percent of the 33.4 acres the farmers have planted have been damaged.