Conrow: Pumping up PMRF

Pumping up PMRF

Kaua’i is being taken by air, land and sea

by Joan Conrow / 10-31-07

Surrounded by security fences, with armed guards at the gates, the high-tech enclave of Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) stands in sharp contrast to the largely deserted beaches and agricultural fields that surround it on Kaua‘i’s rural westside.

Located nearly at the western end of Kaumuali‘i Highway, one of two roads that hug the coastline, but don’t encircle Kauai, the navy base is largely out of sight, and thus out of the minds, of most island residents and visitors.

But PMRF’s low profile image is juxtaposed with high profile actions-and the navy is looking to ramp them up even more. Right now, PMRF is the place where target missiles are launched, and then shot down over the ocean, in anticipation of a day when such weapons are headed toward the USA.

And before long, if the navy gets its way, PMRF will assume even greater importance in the Pacific as the place where a new breed of weaponry and warfare is conceived, tested and deployed.

Among the projects planned for PMRF are research and development in “advanced hypersonic” and “directed energy” weapons, which could include a high energy laser. Other plans call for testing unmanned boats and aircraft, along with air-breathing hypersonic vehicles that cruise at four times the speed of sound. The navy also wants to operate a portable undersea tracking range and increase its antisubmarine and missile defense activities.

The base would be used as well for testing and training in new weapons systems, including electronic warfare; supporting and rapidly deploying naval units and strike brigades; live fire exercises on land and sea; building and operating an instrumented minefield training area; and expanded international Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises.

Give them an inch, they’ll take 235,000 miles

The “planned enhancements” for PMRF, and the rest of Hawai‘i, are revealed in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that outlines the future for the Navy’s Hawai‘i Range Complex (HRC). This is a remarkably broad area that encompasses 235,000 square nautical miles of ocean above and around all 18 Hawaiian Islands, Kaula rock and Johnston Atoll, as well as a 2.1-million nautical mile “temporary operating area” of sea and airspace.

Currently, the Navy conducts some 9,300 training, research, development, testing and evaluation activities in the HRC annually. According to the DEIS, the Navy plans “to increase the tempo and frequency of training exercises” throughout the state, and particularly at PMRF.

As part of that initiative, the Navy will begin hosting “Strike Groups” that would stop by Hawai‘i en route to a final destination for exercises lasting up to 10 days. “The exercise would involve Navy assets engaging in a ‘free play’ battle scenario, with U.S. forces pitted against an opposition force,” the DEIS states. “The exercise provides realistic training on in-theater training operations. Proposed exercise training operations would be similar to current training operations for the RIMPAC and USWEX Exercises.”

The document contends that all the proposed activities listed are “an integral part of [the Navy’s] readiness mandate” and should be carried out in the Islands because ‘the Navy’s presence in Hawai‘i remains of essential strategic and operational importance to U.S. national interests.”

For that reason, the DEIS excluded from consideration any reduction in the current level of training within the range, as well as finding alternative locations for activities now done in the range. The study also did not address the possibility of using computer simulations for training.

Kyle Kajihiro, director of the American Friends Service Committee program in Hawai‘i, is not alone in his belief that the military’s continued buildup is turning the Islands-and especially Kaua‘i-into a target. “It really is counterintuitive, pursuing these kinds of activities in a way that is seen as provocative to other nations,” he says. “It really puts Hawai‘i in the focus because of that.”

The DEIS was drafted, according to the document, as part of a larger Navy directive to make a “comprehensive analysis” of environmental impacts in specific geographic areas.

Kajihiro sees that approach as “skirting the law and getting blanket approval to do things the public may never know about,” including some of the “freakish high tech stuff” that is not fully described in the DEIS. Further, the document does not disclose when the Navy expects to execute many of its plans, using instead such general phrases as “foreseeable future.”

The ocean is their training ground

The DEIS also is intended to address concerns raised over the Navy’s use of underwater high-intensity sonar, which researchers have linked to acoustic trauma that can cause death and strandings among marine animals.

That issue hit center stage in the Islands last year when the Department of Defense granted the Navy a six-month exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), allowing it to use active sonar during the 2006 RIMPAC war games.

Facing litigation in Hawai‘i and Southern California over that exemption, Donald Schregardus, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for the environment, vowed the Navy would no longer attempt to circumvent the law and would instead conduct an EIS for all its ranges where sonar is used before the 2008 exercises.

The DEIS “does not predict any marine mammal mortalities” or serious injuries from the Navy’s sonar activities. “However, given the frequency of naturally occurring marine mammal strandings in Hawai‘i (e.g. natural mortality), it is conceivable that a stranding could co-occur within the timeframe of a Navy exercise, even though the stranding may be unrelated to Navy activities,” the document states.

The National Marine Fisheries Service also advised the Navy to consider “scientific uncertainty and potential for mortality,” the document states, so the Navy is requesting 20 serious injury or mortality “takes” for seven species of marine mammals-including melon-headed whale, bottlenosed dolphin, pygmy killer whale and short-finned pilot whale and three species of beaked whales.

Those findings did not satisfy west Kaua‘i resident Diana LaBedz, of the Surfrider Foundation. “Listen to the world’s citizens … when the oceans die, we die,” she testified in a public hearing on the DEIS.

Much of the sonar activity is centered at PMRF, where the Navy 20 years ago placed acoustic monitoring devices on the ocean floor off the west coast of Kaua‘i to detect and track underwater activity. These acoustic systems “provide a unique evaluative tool that offers specific information in tracking participants’ movements and responses during Naval training exercises,” the DEIS states.

This land is our land

In the two decades since, PMRF has become the world’s largest military test range capable of supporting subsurface, surface, air and space operations and it provides services for “the Navy, other DoD agencies, allies and private industry,” according to the DEIS.

Future plans call for extending military activities well beyond the boundaries of the 1,800-acre base. The Navy also wants to test unmanned boats at Kaua‘i’s Port Allen and Kikiaola Harbor, install a new antenna at Makaha Ridge, enhance its fiber optics infrastructure at Koke‘e State Park and add an underwater training area off Ni‘ihau.”It’s totally inundating Kaua‘i,” Kajihiro says. He dates the current expansion efforts to about 2000, “when there was a rush to deploy missile defense systems and money was being poured into that. It attracted some of the largest defense contractors in the world to set up shop on Kaua‘i.”

That gold rush, coupled with the decline of sugar, has allowed PMRF to emerge as the economic anchor of the rural West side. The base employs about 850 workers, most of them of them civilians, and generates some $112 million annually in paychecks and other spending, endearing itself to business groups, county officials and many West-side residents.

Kajihiro says PMRF’s missile defense program is also driving the University Affiliated Research Center, which creates a controversial partnership between the Navy and University of Hawai‘i for the purpose of military research.

While most Kaua‘i residents are largely unaware of the growth going on behind the security fence, and still have little inkling of the Navy’s plans for PMRF’s future, they are much more attuned to the base’s steady expansion into surrounding lands. When the Navy announced plans to lease “in perpetuity” 5,860 acres of state agricultural land to create a “buffer zone” devoid of development around the base, islanders turned out in large numbers to object.

“The Navy’s request is an aggressive action to restrict the use of the lands by Native Hawaiians,” said Puanani Rogers, who was born and raised on Kaua‘i, in her testimony to the Land Board. “It is the right of the Board to preserve and protect the lands in question and by giving away the lands to the Navy the board is breaching the trust given to them. The buffer zone is a way for the Navy to keep the people of Kaua‘i away from the PMRF as they are a threat to the Navy’s security.”

Many Native Hawaiians were angry that the Navy was encroaching into ceded lands that they felt should be made available first to kanaka maoli.

Still other Kaua‘i residents noted the state had failed to enforce provisions in PMRF’s existing lease, such as allowing access to the shoreline. For several years following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, PMRF closed off public access to the longest stretch of sand in Hawai‘i for “security purposes”-even though only 7.5 miles of the beach actually front the base.

“We don’t trust the Navy or the state, so where do we start?” asked Anahola resident James Torio.

Others objected to the Navy’s use of additional acreage outside the base, noting it has a poor record of caring for public land. Ele‘ele resident Wilma Holi reminded state officials that Hawaiians struggled for 60 years to end the Navy’s claim on Kaho‘olawe. “Do you want our children to fight that same war? Bullshit.”

Despite strong public opposition, the state Land Board approved the request in May 2004, although it didn’t allow the Navy to lease the land in perpetuity. Instead, the terms and conditions will be reviewed every 10 years. The lease agreement allowed the Navy to pick and choose agricultural tenants for the “buffer zone,” including companies growing genetically modified crops.

This further angered activists, who contend that agribusiness companies are allowed to operate in a shroud of secrecy within the Navy-controlled “buffer zone,” thus making it nearly impossible to determine whether experimental genetically modified crops being grown there pose a risk to people or the environment.

Kajihiro agrees that the military has a poor environmental record in Hawai‘i, citing the massive destruction the Navy inflicted on Kaho‘olawe and the presence of some 800 contaminated military sites-a figure that doesn’t include active ranges-throughout the state. Records also show the military dumped toxic chemicals in the ocean, he says, and “Pearl Harbor is a giant Superfund site.”

“They all add up to an unacceptable impact that Hawai‘i has been bearing for over 100 years,” he says.

Culture shock

Past activities at PMRF also have had cultural implications. The rocket launch pad was built on sacred dunes at Nohili-a cultural faux pas that incited protests and arrests, but no change in its location.

The DEIS for the Hawai‘i Range Complex has determined that the Navy’s plans are not expected to have any new cultural impacts, nor would they result in “either short- or long-term impacts to air quality, airspace, geology and soils, hazardous material and hazardous waste, health and safety, land use, noise and utilities.”

“I think that’s ridiculous,” Kajihiro says, noting that the document contains 15 pages of cumulative impacts that must be listed, although not necessarily addressed.

The document does acknowledge that the Navy’s planned activities will have consequences, although in each case it maintains they can be easily dealt with. For example, “PMRF’s requirements for additional electricity demand, potable water consumption, wastewater generated and solid waste disposal would be handled by existing facilities,” the document states, even though the high energy laser alone would require 30 megawatts of power.

As for public safety, “PMRF would develop the necessary standard operating procedures and range safety requirements necessary to provide safe operations associated with future high energy laser tests,” the document states.

The DEIS goes on to assert, “The Navy has appropriate plans in place to manage hazardous materials used and generated. Fragments of expended training materials, e.g. ammunition, bombs and missiles, will be deposited on the ocean floor. The widely dispersed, intermittent, minute size of the material minimizes the impact. Wave energy and currents will further disperse the materials.”

Additionally, it states, “some current flight trajectories could result in missiles such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) flying over portions of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Preliminary results of debris analysis indicate that debris is not expected to severely harm threatened, endangered, migratory, or other endemic species on or offshore of Nihoa and Necker Islands. Quantities of falling debris will be very low and widely scattered so as not to present a toxicity issue. Falling debris will also have cooled down sufficiently so as not to present a fire hazard for vegetation and habitat. If feasible, consideration will be given to alterations in the missile flight trajectory, to further minimize the potential for debris impacts.”

Kajihiro is disheartened by that sort of language, saying the DEIS for the Hawai‘i Range is “short on particularities for specific programs” and glances over the cumulative impacts. But such an approach is characteristic of how many government agencies respond to the National Environmental Protection Act.

“I don’t believe the EIS process, at least the way it works right now, does work for the communities or resources affected,” he says. “Agencies have become very skilled at predicting the outcome and filling in the pieces to ensure the outcome. That’s why there’s so much litigation.”

However, he said, the EIS process “is one of the only ways people can get involved and get things on the record.”

Still, just three people turned out for the DEIS hearing on O‘ahu, he says. “People feel so jaded and disillusioned because they feel no one is listening.”

While a larger number did testify at the Kaua‘i hearing, others failed to meet the Sept. 17 deadline for comments because they were distracted by the Superferry controversy.

Kajihiro says they won’t really get another chance to voice their views. Although the public will have 45 days to review and comment on the final EIS, “there’s no formal hearing process and they rarely incorporate any of those comments into the final document,” he says.

It appears, then, that the Navy will be allowed to move ahead with its plans for the Hawai‘i Range Complex, barring any legal challenges and provided that Congress keeps appropriating funds.

That’s a big deal in Hawai‘i, where military spending is a major component of the economy. Kajihiro, however, likens such expenditures to an athlete using steroids. For a time, he says, the performance is great.

“But it’s killing your heart, and ultimately your health is going to fail.”

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