The full extent of military expansion at Pohakuloa is only becoming more evident.
The Army website for the Pohakuloa Training Areas Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement can be accessed here. Written comments on the proposed action and alternatives will be accepted via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) and U.S. mail until February 7, 2011 to: PTA PEIS, P.O. Box 514, Honolulu, HI 96809. Materials from the scoping meetings will be made available on the “Project Documents” page.
Yesterday, I learned that people witnessed construction activity up on the slopes of Mauna Loa. The activity was so high on the mountain that the observer thought it surely must be outside the boundary of the Pohakuloa Training Area. Later, they saw explosions near the site from aircraft and land based artillery fire.
We have confirmed that the construction companies were building ‘targets’. Julie Taomia, an archaeologist at Pohakuloa said that the activity is most likely related to Marine Corps projects. She said that the Pohakuloa Training Area extends pretty far up Mauna Loa, beyond the old Hilo-Kona Road. She said that the Marines did an Environmental Assessment (EA) for this range construction work. However, since this was done as an EA, as opposed to a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), it slipped past the notice of most people. Furthermore, since this is a Marine Corps project, she said that cultural monitors, which are required under the Army Stryker Brigade programmatic agreement, are not required to oversee ground disturbing activity, which is just a way for the Army to avoid responsibility for the impacts on an Army range. This loophole must be closed. The Marine Corps expansion contributes tot he cumulative impacts of military activity. There should be way to conduct cultural and environmental monitoring for all activity related to the installation regardless of which service branch is doing the project.
In addition to this current Marine Corps expansion activity, the Marines are expanding training in Pohakuloa to accommodate the new aircraft scheduled to be stationed at Mokapu (a.k.a. the Marine Corps Base Kane’ohe). I missed the following article in the Big Island Weekly when it came out in September.
The Marines are landing on the island
The United States military is planning yet another expansion entailing increased use of Pohakuloa Training Area. The Marine Corps wants to move up to three additional squadrons of aircraft to the islands, including 9 UH-1Y Huey and 18 AH-1Z Cobra helicopters and 24 of its controversial MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
The Marines held “scoping meetings” for an Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed expansion last week in Hilo and Kona. The meetings followed an “open house” format: instead of allowing public testimony before an open mic, the meeting’s organizers set up various visual displays manned by experts to answer questions, and allowed members of the public to present written testimony or dictate their input to a court reporter. But a group of protestors led by Malu Aina’s Jim Albertini brought their own microphone system to the Hilo meeting to voice their objections to the plan, including concerns that increased use of PTA’s firing range could stir up depleted uranium dust there and that the Ospreys, which have a less-than-perfect safety record, could present dangers to servicemen and to the community.
The move would essentially allow an entire Marine Air-Ground Task Force to operate out of Kaneohe Marine Air Base. Most of the components of such a task force, including command and ground elements and CH-53D “Sea Stallion” heavy-lift helicopters, are already in place here. The proposed move would allow medium-lift and assault helicopters needed by the MAGTF to train alongside the other elements of the force.
Although the new aircraft would be based on O’ahu, their presence would be felt across the island chain. The plan calls for training, including gunnery exercises, at Pohakuloa; for refueling facilities and night exercises at Molokai Training Support Facility and Kalaupapa Airfield, respectively; for additional activities at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, and possibly for target practice on an islet called Kau’ula Rock, near Ni’ihau.
Perhaps the plan’s most controversial element is the Osprey, a hybrid aircraft with stubby wings that end in two giant propellers that can lift the craft like a helicopter, then rotate to pull the machine forward like an airplane. The Marines want Ospreys to replace their aging C-46 “Sea Knight” medium-lift choppers, which have only about half the Ospreys’ range and speed.
“It’s much more capable (than the C-46) and it’s faster – and faster, for the Marines, is safer,” said a Marine spokesperson at the scoping meeting.
But the Osprey has a troubled history. Based on an experimental craft that gained Bell Helicopter and Boeing a joint government contract in 1983, first flown in 1989, Ospreys remained in development for the next 15 years; along the way, it compiled a long record of cost overruns, mechanical failures and crashes, killing 30 people before the first operational Marine squadron began training in 2005.
“The mishaps that we had in the 90s and in 2000 [when two Ospreys crashed, killing 23 people] were tragic,” said Jason Holder, one of the Marines’ authorities at the scoping meeting in Hilo. But he said that since those incidents, the Marines had brought in “outside experts” to fix the problems that no crashes had occurred in over 80,000 flight hours since 2002.
That statement wasn’t entirely accurate. An Osprey went down under combat conditions in Afghanistan in April of 2010. But that accident occurred during a dust storm and may have been influenced by weather, pilot error or even enemy action. Due to an electronic malfunction, another Osprey took off without a pilot and made a rather unsuccessful landing.
The Ospreys have had enough other problems that the U.S. General Accounting Office recommended last year the Secretary of Defense require a new analysis of alternatives to the aircraft, and that the Marines develop “a prioritized strategy to improve system suitability, reduce operational costs, and align future budget requests.”
“Although recently deployed in Iraq and regarded favorably, it has not performed the full range of missions anticipated, and how well it can do so is in question,” the GAO Web site (http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-09-692T) summarized.
At the Hilo meeting, the Sierra Club’s Cory Harden provided a long list of media references about various problems with the Ospreys, including the aircraft’s inability to glide to an unpowered landing, as helicopters can, and a downwash from its rotors that can be so powerful that during a demonstration at Staten Island, New York, it knocked down tree branches and injured 10 spectators.
In light of such problems, Harden asked that the EIS “evaluate the risks of Ospreys harming military personnel and civilians” in Hawai’i.
Another major concern voiced at the meeting was the continued presence of depleted uranium at Pohakuloa and the risk that increased use of the facility’s target range might have of stirring up radioactive dust. The military has maintained that the number of DU shells fired there, and the risk of the dust leaving the area, were both minimal, while critics claim that thousands of uranium spotter rounds may have been fired, that the dust could spread for miles, and that even a few molecules in the lungs could cause cancer. Albertini pointed out that a County Council resolution had called for a moratorium on any live fire exercises at PTA until an independent assessment and cleanup of the DU there had taken place.
The deployment of the new Marine Aircraft would almost certainly mean more use of PTA’s firing range. The Osprey’s notorious downwash could certainly stir up dust. But while it can mount an optional belly or ramp gun, it is primarily a transport, not a gun platform. A much bigger user of the firing range would likely be the Marines’ venerable Cobras, which have been blasting enemy targets with gunfire and Hellfire missiles since the Vietnam era. Jim Isaacs, another Marine expert running one of the information stations at the Hilo meeting, noted that with the Cobras, “sixty percent of events are ordnance related.” He noted, however, that the Marines’ Cobras did not fire any ordnance containing DU.
The new aircraft probably would create some jobs in the islands – especially construction jobs. Ironically, despite the choppers’ and Ospreys’ go-anywhere mission, one big ticket item involved in moving them here could be the construction of new landing pads at Schofield and elsewhere. Marine spokesperson James Sibley told the Weekly that while there were “no plans” currently for new helipads at Pohakuloa, “Right now PTA can barely support the operators of the helicopters that we have here”: that downwash could potentially lift the existing runway’s steel mesh material, causing damage.
Despite their obvious differences, the Marines joined the protestors in an opening pule, or Hawaiian prayer. A court reporter typed continuously during the protestor’s testimony, apparently taking it down.
Members of the public who missed the meetings are encouraged to visit the project’s website, http://www.mcbh.usmc.mil/22h1eis to submit online testimony, or to mail comments to Department of the Navy, Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Pacific, Attn: EV21, MV 22/H-1 EIS Manager, Makalapa Drive, Suite 100, Pearl Harbor, HI 96860-3134.