Residents to Army: NO
An army has to train if it wants to avoid unnecessary casualties. And American troops stationed in Hawai’i face a narrowing set of options for training. Kaho’olawe has been returned, much the worse for wear, to the native Hawaiians. And last week, the Army bowed to public pressure and announced that it would no longer pursue live-fire training in O’ahu’s Makua Valley.
That leaves Hawai’i Island’s 133,000-acre Pohakuloa Training Area to absorb much of the burden. Last year, the Army announced that it would shift its artillery heavy weapons practice from Makua to Pohakuloa. And last week, island residents got a glimpse of some of the specifics of that plan, as the Army held two “scoping sessions” for its “Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement” on the Army’s proposal to modernize PTA’s aged buildings and firing range. But at the two sessions, it appeared that the Army had no more support for training here than it did at Makua Valley.
Compared to some of its recent projects, such as the purchase of several thousand acres of range land for a Stryker vehicle maneuver area, the plans covered by the Programmatic EIS are relatively modest. All of the improvements would fall “within the current footprint. We’re not buying land to expand,” army spokesperson Mike Egami told BIW.
“The cantonment area and the ranges are so old that they’re not up to modern Army standards. The ranges are really fundamental; we have them (troops) training on these Korea-World War II types of facilities,” Egami said.
Plans include a new “shoot house” — an indoor firing range with walls that bullets can’t penetrate — an Infantry Battle Complex for training company-sized groups of foot soldiers, and a Military Operations Urban Terrain (MOUT) site where soldiers can practice dismounted urban warfare, all to be built within the confines of the current firing range.
At this stage, there still appear to be major holes in the Army’s assessment of the new facilities’ impact. Egami couldn’t say, for instance, how much the use of the new facilities would increase the amount of ammunition fired at the base, and when, where and how the unexploded ordnance would be cleaned up. He did tell BIW that all the ammunition used at the new facilities would be from small arms.
At the Tuesday Hilo scoping session, not a single resident spoke in favor of the Army’s plans. The Army got a similar verbal shellacking the next night in Waimea. Most of those who spoke wanted Pohakuloa closed down, not expanded. Several residents suggested that the Army should spend its money on rehabilitating the physical and mental casualties of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, instead of on expanding training facilities.
“I can say that I’m a part of a military family, like it or not,” said veteran Hawaiian activist Moanikeala Akaka, after reciting a long list of relatives who’d served in the military or worked on military bases. “But I can say there are some of us who are sick and tired of the military expansion on the island.”
Relatively few of the speakers, in fact, actually addressed the specifics of the Army proposals contained in the PEIS, though one speaker did suggest that new training sites be moved to a different part of the impact area to get them further away from areas of native vegetation. Several residents wanted to talk about still another army training proposal that was not contained within the PEIS: The Army wants to use existing DLNR helicopter landing sites on Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea to hold high altitude training for the choppers of its 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, which is due to employ to Afghanistan in late spring of this year. The High Altitude Mountainous Environment Terrain Training (HAMET) is being handled in a separate Environmental Assessment; EAs do not require public hearings, though residents can give written input. A Draft Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) was published last month, and the Army is now accepting public comment on it. The draft is available at larger public libraries and online (Search Army + Hawaii + HAMET).
The Army has, in fact, been using those landing sites for years, and not without incident. According to the Draft Finding of No Significant Impact, a helicopter involved in a HAMET exercise in 2003 missed its landing zone and accidentally landed in the Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve. In 2006, another HAMET “incident” occurred when “an aircraft hovered too low over critical habitat.” The “critical habitat” mentioned is home to the palila, an endangered Hawaiian bird found only in the Big Island’s upper-altitude mamane forests, some of which have already been lost to the realignment of the Saddle Road.
Other threatened or endangered species may also be affected by the flights: the ‘io (Hawaiian Hawk); the ope’ape’a (Hawaiian hoary bat); and the nene. One of the helicopter landing sites on Mauna Loa, in fact, lies right on the edge of the Kipuka Ainahou Nene Sanctuary, though a map included in the Draft FONSI shows the border of the actual nene range well to the east of the sanctuary border. The Army plans to mitigate by flying at least 2000 feet over possible habitats, and the FONSI claims that the endangered species are “unlikely to be present at the elevation of any of the LZs [landing zones].”
Paul Neves of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I called the HAMET EA “completely inadequate.” He noted, for instance, that it had “no analysis of people using traditional trails near the landing zones,” and didn’t mention the usage of Mauna Loa Observatory Road by observatory workers, hunters and hikers, even though the military wanted to use landing zones on both sides of that road.
“The helicopters have been landing for seven years now with almost zero public oversight…,” testified the Sierra Club’s Cory Harden. “Helicopters may fly up to 18 hours a day during training, day and night, to within 2,000 vertical feet of the summit. The EA says noise and visual impacts on cultural practices and recreation will not be significant. That’s like saying impacts would not be significant from helicopters at Machu Pichu…. The EA has a cultural overview without one word about the illegal takeover of Hawai’i. That’s like writing a cultural overview of the United States and leaving out the Civil War.”
Harden also brought up another controversy: the furor over depleted uranium ordnance at Pohakuloa and the army’s refusal, so far, to completely remove it, or even to hunt very hard for it. She cited instance after instance of the army documents and spokespeople claiming it was too dangerous to look for DU in Pohakuloa’s impact zone. Yet all of the new battle areas, she noted, were “either in or directly adjacent to the existing impact areas of PTA.”
“Why is it too dangerous to enter the impact area to hunt for DU, but safe to go in and build more military facilities?” she asked.
Egami told BIW that the new live fire training facilities were not in the impact area, but adjacent to it. But one of the displays the army had put up at the scoping session said that the Infantry Platoon Battle Area would be “located at one of three (3) potential locations within the existing impact area”; an adjacent map showed not only the Infantry Platoon Battle area, but the shoot house and MOUT facility all within the impact zone. Army munitions expert Vic Garo explained that there were actually two zones of risk within the impact area. Within the impact area was the Improved Munitions Area, which held unexploded heavy ordnance including Vietnam-era bomblets. The outer zone, where the new facilities would be located, may contain mostly unexploded small arms munitions.
“We had to send our explosive ordnance disposal people in to clear that area [where the new facilities would be]” he said; cultural and natural survey teams could enter the outer zone if accompanied by explosives ordnance demolition teams.
“When projects come up, we go within the impact zone,” confirmed PTA archeologist Julie Toombs. “I keep telling people we haven’t blown any archeologists up yet.”
Toombs said that there had, indeed, been archeological sites found within the Impact Area: “There are platforms, lava tube systems, excavated pits….” Toombs said no one knew for certain what the pits were for, but they may have been carved into the lava to attract nesting sea birds: “Nineteenth Century accounts speak of huge flocks of sea birds in that area.”
Many native Hawaiians, from veteran activists such as Neves to several students who testified in Hawaiian, saw the Army’s plans as a strengthening of an illegal military occupation.
“Pretty soon the Big Island will no longer be the Big Island, because it will be called the United States Military,” predicted Neves.
Others dwelt on the sacredness of the mountain.
“I don’t know how many of you have seen Avatar, but Mauna Kea is like our home tree,” said another. “Your training of our youth is appreciated, but not here on Mauna Kea, not at Pohakuloa.”