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Army training must follow state laws

LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

The state and the Army need to find a middle ground in their clash over mountaintop helicopter training on the Big Island, a solution that would lead to compliance with Hawaii environmental laws without running up an enormous and pointless expense for shifting the training to the mainland this year.

It's disturbing that a more coordinated approach to environmental review wasn't taken — the Army is not new to state laws, especially given past land-use antagonisms. But at this point the state should issue a permit covering only this year's training plan — the last such short-term clearance — while the Army revises its federal environmental assessment to meet Hawaii requirements.

Precedent should make this settlement easier to swallow. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources previously has granted short-term permission for the Army's high-altitude helicopter training on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, using three existing landing zones on each mountain. That happened in 2003, 2004 and 2005, prior to deployments, and this year, in an expedition combining some training with research for the federal study.

What Schofield's Tropic Lightning Division wants now is a permit enabling ongoing training of its 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, "to satisfy mandated annual training requirements," according to the assessment the Army filed to fulfill federal regulations.

That's clearly something that should require an environmental assessment fulfilling state laws, as Gov. Neil Abercrombie has ordered after consulting with state attorneys. The Army has agreed to do so, but time is too short to meet all the requirements, especially the 30-day comment period, to train 260 pilots before the January deployment to Afghanistan. The original timetable had the training rounds beginning in June.

The alternative, Army officials say, is to send the pilots to a training site in Fort Carson, Colo., at a cost estimated as high as $11 million, possibly including the transport of helicopters as well: The exercises require CH47 Chinooks and UH-60 Black Hawk choppers, and the right kind aren't available for their use at the Colorado base.

Had the Army been proposing to have more than three helicopters flying over at a time, or for them to venture into untouched areas, or to land for longer than the projected maximum of 10 minutes, or to offload any troops or supplies, the added expense of relocation might have been easier to justify. But, based on the training description provided in the assessment, it's not.

That said, the general public deserves a greater opportunity to comment on the proposal than the federal process has provided them. The federal draft assessment foresees no significant impacts from the training — noise within allowable levels, no species likely to be present or affected by the flyovers of a maximum three helicopters at a time, insignificant effects from emissions or particles kicked up by the craft. But the cultural practitioners and others most knowledgeable about the mountain environments may have observations to add as the required state assessment gets under way.

Army and state officials are expected to be discussing this further, and that's a good thing. In the process, they should make sure that future environmental assessments can be done in overlapping fashion, far more efficiently than what happened here.

The state wants to support the training of its military and to keep tabs on environmental impacts from its activity. There's no reason it can't do both, even at this late stage.

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