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Suit blames state for alleged abuse of Pohakuloa lands

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    Army field artillery soldiers fire a 155 mm howitzer during an exercise at the Pohakuloa Training Area on Hawaii island.

A trial begins today in a lawsuit that accuses the state Department of Land and Natural Resources of failing to properly oversee the Army’s use of ceded lands at the Pohakuloa Training Area on Hawaii island.

Residents Clarence Ching and Mary Maxine Kahaulelio are asking the Circuit Court to find that the state has failed to do its duty in ensuring that the military complies with the conditions of its lease at Pohakuloa.

Ching and Kahaulelio, represented by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., are also asking the court to block the state from extending the existing lease, which expires in 2029, until it’s been to determined that the terms of the existing lease have been satisfactorily fulfilled.

Arguments in the trial are scheduled to begin this morning in the Honolulu courtroom of Circuit Judge Gary Chang.

In 1964 the state leased about 23,000 acres of land on Hawaii island to the federal government for military purposes. The lease required the U.S. government to make every reasonable effort to remove or deactivate all live or blank ammunition and remove or bury all trash, garbage or other waste materials.

But the DLNR, as trustee of these leased lands, has failed to ensure that those terms have been followed, the suit alleges.

The suit says the the defendants are obligated to protect public trust lands and prevent them from falling into ruin, especially when they have reason to believe that the lease terms have been violated.

The suit claims there is plenty of evidence to indicate the lease is being violated. The state, it says, is aware that munitions might litter the ground. It cites a March 2013 report on the construction of a Poha­ku­loa infantry platoon battle course that said unexploded ordnance and explosives of concern are “expected to be encountered during range construction activities.”

The lawsuit also claims that DLNR is well aware of the military’s poor track record when it comes to cleaning up after training activities. That track record, it said, is seen in the difficulties the military has shown in its cleanup of unexploded ordnance at Makua and Waikane valleys and on Kahoolawe.

The military activity at Pohakuloa negatively affects the Native Hawaiian plaintiffs as they engage in traditional practices around the area, according to the suit. Ching has seen expended rifle casings, machine-gun cartridge links, unfired blanks and other rubbish on the ground there, it says, while Kahaulelio has also seen the damage.

A DLNR spokesman said he would not comment on pending or active litigation. The state denied the lawsuit’s assertions in a September 2014 response.

The Army describes Pohakuloa as the premier training area for military forces in the Pacific region.

“Units from all U.S. military services, as well as allied militaries, train at PTA, because it offers realistic training opportunities not found elsewhere. With several new construction projects underway, PTA stands ready to support military training well into the future,” the facility’s website says.

At the same time, it said, the 133,000-acre training ground is at the “vanguard of environmental and cultural protection,” employing more than 50 people dedicated to preserving and protecting endangered and threatened plants and safeguarding cultural resources.

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