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Military studies Waikane Valley bomb cleanup

A Windward Oahu area littered with old munitions is being looked at by both the Marines and the Army

By William Cole


Up a rutted road in jungly Waikane Valley, past the old Ka Mauna 'o 'Oliveta Church, through a locked gate and beyond a security fence is the former Kamaka family farm, the now-defunct military training range that replaced it, and the long-held hope -- going on decades now -- that the land can be returned to the agricultural and cultural place it used to be.

Waikane Valley is one of dozens of former military training sites in Hawaii undergoing the slow, arduous and sometimes painful process that goes along with demilitarization.

Among those many sites, Waikane is considered by some to be a special place, and there's been momentum in recent years to clean up the munitions that litter it.

The Marine Corps and Army Corps of Engineers are each conducting studies on removing ordnance from a total of 1,061 acres in Waikane Valley. Citizen advisory groups are asking Congress for millions in cleanup funds.

"Things seem to be moving in a good direction -- at least things seem to be moving, which is a good direction," said Windward resident and attorney David Henkin, who is on the two restoration advisory boards for the land.

Land in and around the former training area is valued as a cultural and natural resource. The city thought highly enough of the land in 1998 to spend $3.5 million for 500 acres to the southeast of the Marine Corps land that are intended to

become the Waikane Valley Nature Park. A private landowner, Paul Zweng, bought 1,400 acres -- part of which is in the former training area -- for a proposed Ohulehule Forest Conservancy to preserve and restore the endemic flora and fauna in the valley, officials said.

"It's gorgeous. It's beautiful forest lands," said Kyle Kajihiro, who is on the restoration advisory boards for the valley. "There's a really important loi (taro patch) complex and some sacred sites in there."

Waikane Valley is blanketed by the canopies of albizia trees that tower over mango, guava, hala, lilikoi and viney plants, which, in turn, harbor lots of mosquitoes and the objects causing all the concern: lots of unexploded ordnance.

Despite the potential risk, off-road vehicles tear up Waikane Stream, and pig hunters cut through the fence that surrounds the 187 acres still owned by the Marine Corps.

Between 1943 and 1953 the Army leased more than 2,000 acres in the Waiahole and Waikane valleys for jungle training; small arms, artillery and mortar fire; and aerial bombing, according to a recent Navy investigation.

In 1953, the Marine Corps took over, leasing 1,061 acres for live-fire training. The report said live fire "apparently" stopped in the early 1960s, and that the lease was terminated in 1976.

A Marine Corps clearance effort in 1976 removed 24,000 pounds of practice ordnance and fragments, and 42 unexploded munitions.

In 1984 the Marines came back and recovered 480 3.5-inch rockets from what is known as the Waikane Valley Impact Area. A 2009 site inspection turned up 66 shoulder-fired rockets, one 2.36-inch rocket and three rifle grenades.

The unexploded ordnance, or "UXO," as it's known, was so thick the Marines abandoned in 2003 a plan to conduct blank-fire jungle training in the valley, saying it was too dangerous.

Despite that, community members working with the military on continuing studies say there's progress and hope that Congress will provide cleanup funding.

"In terms of the threat posed by the munitions and the proximity to populated areas and the ease with which people access (the valley), my understanding is it's a pretty high priority for cleanup funds," said Henkin, a lawyer for the Earthjustice environmental advocacy group.

"I think between the high priority inherent in the site and probably the assistance of Sen. (Daniel) Inouye -- we have a pretty good chance of getting some serious funding directed to that end," Henkin said.

According to a 2010 state report, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Honolulu District, which conducts munitions cleanups under its Formerly Used Defense Site, or FUDS, program, had 140 such sites in Hawaii, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and Palau.

The projected cost to clean up those sites was $1.99 billion. With between $15 million and $16 million in funding a year, the cleanup work in the region would extend to the year 2134, the state report noted.

Two remediation efforts are taking place in Waikane Valley. The Marine Corps said it is spending $1.37 million to investigate the 187-acre impact area where the majority of the munitions are located and to develop a feasibility study for cleanup options that is expected to be released in the fall.

The Army Corps of Engineers, meanwhile, is working on 874 adjoining acres that contain fewer munitions as part of the FUDS program. In addition to a $1.34 million study, the Army Corps said it has a $1.94 million ordnance clearance effort under way with Environet Inc. focusing on two parcels totaling 44 acres.

Among the decisions the Marine Corps will have to make is whether to clean up the 187 acres it still owns and to what degree, as well as what to do with the land afterward.

While some community members have complained about the number of plans put forth and the length of time for the Marine Corps to address the issue, an email response from Marine Corps Base Hawaii to the Star-Advertiser said the latest "munitions response program," which began in 2008, "is detailed and takes time to ensure potential risks to human health and the environment are thoroughly identified and appropriate cleanup action is selected."

People have been injured and killed by mishandled munitions in Waikane Valley, though there have been no incidents recently, according to the Navy "remedial investigation" draft report issued in March.

In 1944, two people were killed and two others were injured when a 60 mm mortar discovered in the valley accidentally detonated, the report said.

Three children were injured in 1963 when a "souvenir" rifle grenade reportedly discovered in Waikane Valley exploded after it was thrown against a wall. There have been no other reports of injury attributed to munitions found in the valley, the report said.

Raymond Kamaka, 72, said his family owned and farmed the Marine Corps land as far back as 1850 through a deed from King Kamehameha III, and he still lays claim to it.

His great-great-great-grandmother, Racheal Lahela, who came from Waikane, was a half sister of Queen Liliuokalani, Kamaka said.

Kamaka recalled playing in the valley as a kid. "It was our playground. Up there we used to swim," he said. He remembers three ancient heiau.

The government later said it needed the land for wartime training, leased it from the Hawaiian family, and said it would clean it up and return it afterward.

The lease was terminated in 1976, and the Marines conducted several cleanups. Kamaka, a one-time professional wrestler, returned to farm in the early 1980s. He grew taro and raised pigs and brought in schoolchildren for visits.

When munitions were found on the property's higher reaches, the military condemned the land in 1989. Much of the family settled for $2.3 million in 1994 -- but not Raymond Kamaka.

"Nobody settled with me," said Kamaka, who claims to be the only rightful heir.

The ensuing years have been "hell," Kamaka said. "I lost everything." He went to jail for two years in disputes with the government over the land, he said.

He still expects to farm on the family land again one day.

"Am I gonna come back? Yes," he said.

Kajihiro, who also is program director for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that supports Native Hawaiian rights, said "there is some political will to do some cleanup (on the Marine Corps land). To what level is a question of cost."

"We're saying it should be cleaned up to the highest level possible to allow the broadest number of uses," Kajihiro said. He added that those uses "need to be mindful of, and consistent with, Uncle Raymond Kamaka and his family's vision and uses of the land -- which were agricultural and cultural uses."


Waikane Valley's history as a military training range:

Early 1940s
U.S. Army leases more than 2,000 acres in Waiahole and Waikane valleys and uses the property for jungle training, artillery, mortar, small arms fire, maneuvers and as a bombing range for air-to-ground fire.

Two people are killed and two are injured by a 60-millimeter mortar discovered in the valley.

Marine Corps leases 1,061 acres. Training includes small-arms fire, 3.5-inch rockets and medium artillery.

Early 1960s
Marines stop use of live fire.

Three children are injured when a "souvenir" rifle grenade is thrown against a wall and explodes.

Marines conduct ordnance clearance sweeps.

Marines conduct additional ordnance clearance sweeps and remove 480 3.5-inch rockets.

U.S. government acquires title to the 187-acre ordnance impact area.

A perimeter chain-link fence is installed around the impact area.

Marines propose conducting blank-fire training on the site.

Marines abandon the idea when a study finds too much danger from unexploded ordnance.

Marines conduct a "remedial investigation" on the 187-acre Waikane Valley Impact Area.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is investigating ordnance on 874 adjoining acres and removing munitions from 44 acres within that parcel.

Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Marine Corps


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