Army wants to resume destructive training in Makua

June 6, 2009

Army may restart live-ammo use in Hawaii’s Makua Valley

EIS that clears way for ‘full-capacity’ training may face court challenge

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

After eight years of efforts, numerous setbacks and court filings, and millions of dollars spent on studies and legal fees, the Army yesterday released a nearly 6,000-page environmental impact statement seeking a return to “full capacity” live-fire training in Makua Valley.

The study’s completion could mean a return to live fire in the 4,190-acre Wai’anae Coast valley in the not-too-distant future. Live fire hasn’t occurred there since the summer of 2004, when the Army was supposed to have completed the environmental study.

A final record of decision is expected after 30 days. The Army could schedule training after that.

The Army’s “preferred alternative” out of five examined would include 50 combat-arms live-five exercises per year; 200 convoy live-fire exercises a year; the use of Humvees, trucks, Stryker armored and unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters; the use of tube-launched TOW missiles and rockets; and use of a ridge between the north and south training areas.

The Army agreed under a 2001 court settlement with environmental law firm Earthjustice and the community group Malama Makua to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement analysis of the more than 75 years of military training in Makua Valley.

The EIS was supposed to be completed by October 2004, but one of many delays in its completion was a fire that was intentionally set by the Army in 2003 to manage grasses but which got out of control and charred half the valley.

Because the Army did not complete the EIS by the agreed-upon time, the military has been prevented in court from a return to live-fire training in Makua, although some blank-fire and vehicle training has been conducted there.

‘Problems’ with EIS

Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, who has represented Malama Makua for the duration of the case, yesterday said deficiencies in the study remain.

“We have some serious problems here – the first problem has to do with violating the court order in terms of what the required contents of this EIS are,” Henkin said.

Henkin said the impact of training on the marine environment has not been adequately addressed. He added that on Thursday, he sent the Army notice that if it does not withdraw the EIS and include the required information, “we’ll see them back in court.”

An Army environmental report released in January found little difference in ocean contaminants near Makua compared to “background” test sites at Nanakuli and Sandy Beach.

The court saga over the use of Makua Valley for training has generated conflicting views even among Hawai’i’s congressional delegation.

Hawai’i’s senior U.S. senator, Democrat Daniel K. Inouye, weighed in with an opinion piece running in tomorrow’s Advertiser.

“I encourage the people of Hawai’i to review all the information. In doing so, I hope you will come to the same conclusion: Let them train,” Inouye said.

Inouye, a World War II combat veteran who lost his arm in battle, said the Army is a good neighbor and longtime member of the community.

“It has taken its responsibility very seriously, and has come to the conclusion that it can sufficiently mitigate the risks inherent in conducting live-fire training exercises in the valley,” Inouye said. “Rather than continuing to nitpick at one thing or another, and force a return yet again to court, serving only to delay critical training that could provide the difference between life and death, I respectfully suggest that we, as a community, stand up and say, ‘We’ve had enough of these delay tactics. Let them train.’ ”

sacred sites

In 2007, the Army in a report to Congress called a return to company-size live-fire training at Makua Valley “absolutely critical,” a stand that drew a sharp rebuke from U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai’i.

Abercrombie said the Army has spent millions to unsuccessfully defend in court the use of a training range that can be replaced.

The Army said at the time that the only theoretically possible alternative would be to spend up to $600 million to build up similar training capabilities at the 133,000-acre Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island, an effort it said would take seven to 12 years.

Abercrombie called the cost estimate ridiculously high.

“I am deeply concerned about the Army’s final Environmental Impact Statement regarding the continued use of the Makua Military Reservation,” Abercrombie said yesterday.

The land contains Native Hawaiian sacred sites, as well as endangered plants and species, he said.

“Makua as a training site was acquired in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack in WW II and never intended to be permanent,” Abercrombie said. “Alternatives which match the training needs of a 21st-century Army are available.”

Return of the Makua land would be an “expression of good will and faith by the Army,” he said. “Its constrained use is not a matter of military necessity, but of legal convenience.”

No Decision yet

The Army yesterday said its EIS incorporates detailed studies, as well as more than 180 public comments received during numerous public meetings.

“No decision has been made regarding what type of training will be conducted at … (Makua) in the future,” said Col. Matthew T. Margotta, the commander of U.S. Army Garrison Hawai’i. “A decision will be made by senior Army leadership in Hawai’i in coordination with Department of the Army no less than 30 days from release of (the) EIS.”

The Army completed a company combined-arms assault course at Makua Military Reservation in 1988 and used it for 10 years, but suspended training temporarily in 1998 because of several fires.

The EIS defines some training as “core mission essential,” such as the company-size exercises that used to be held at Makua, but said that sort of operation is not occurring in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Makua training exposes a company of about 150 soldiers to multiple aspects of battle, including small-arms fire, artillery whistling overhead and helicopters swooping by firing machine guns.


The warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan requires “directed mission essential” training such as convoy live fire, but the Army said it needs to conduct both types of training at Makua.

Without the use of Makua, Schofield soldiers have traveled more to Pohakuloa on the Big Island and to the Mainland for training, keeping them away from their families longer and incurring a greater expense for the government.

The Army examined five options, including no action. The others are: reduced capacity at Makua with some weapons restrictions; full-capacity use of Makua with some weapons restrictions; the preferred alternative; and full-capacity use of Pohakuloa.

Fires from training in Makua Valley, with more than 50 endangered plant and animal species in the area, and more than 100 archeological features there, have always been a big concern.

Henkin, the Earthjustice attorney, said the proposed training represents a potentially significant increase in military usage of the valley.

“As people start processing this information, it’s important to bear in mind that all of the alternatives explored in the EIS provide for soldiers to be trained,” Henkin said.

Wai’anae Coast resident William Aila Jr. said he is disappointed the Army chose to take “the most destructive option” for training in Makua.

“They don’t need Makua,” Aila said. “What it is, is they don’t want to give up another inch of land in Hawai’i,”


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