Malama Solomon and some members of Hawaii’s Senate Water and Land Committee say the state should sue the U.S. Navy for roughly $100 million because it didn’t clean up all the ordnance that it dropped on the small island of Kahoolawe.

From World War II until 1990, the Navy used the 45 square-mile island off of Maui for target practice, raining down thousands of bombs, grenades, projectiles and other explosives — one of which, a 500-pound bomb, missed Kahoolawe and hit Maui. The military contractor has since cleared close to 30,000 munitions from the uninhabited island, according to a Navy report. But that work ended in 2004 and the island remains hazardous.

At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Water and Land on Tuesday, Solomon, who chairs the committee, criticized the Navy over the dangerous legacy it left on Kahoolawe. “As far as I’m concerned, they’ve broken their trust and we’re going to resolve that” she said.

The senator added that she will meet with the governor, re-discuss the issue with her committee, and then encourage a lawsuit against the U.S. Navy.

Navy spokeswoman Agnes Tauyan said by email that the Navy had spent seven years and $400 million to clear ordnance from more than 26,000 acres, or 85 percent of the island. To do more, would require additional funding.

“At the beginning of the clearance project, the goal was to clear all of the island’s surface and perform additional subsurface clearing for designated areas, but the Navy and state recognized that depended on funding,” the spokeswoman wrote. “No one familiar with Kaho`olawe or the clearance project ever promised or expected to clean up all of the (ordnance).”

Tauyan said that she was not aware of any congressional effort to appropriate more cleanup funds.

Ultimately, it’s up to Gov. Neil Abercrombie to decide whether the state moves forward in court, according to the attorney general’s office. In 2004, that office determined that the state did indeed have a basis for a lawsuit, but former Gov. Linda Lingle chose not to pursue it, according to a representative from the AG’s office who spoke at the hearing.

Louise Kim McCoy, a spokeswoman for the governor, said it would be premature to comment on Abercrombie’s position at this time and that the attorney general’s office would have to conduct a new review to determine whether there is a plausible claim.

In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower transferred the title for Kahoolawe to the U.S. Navy with a stipulation that it be returned to Hawaii in a condition for “suitable habitation.”

The Navy’s occupation of the island was controversial, sparking decades-long protests by Native Hawaiians. Well-known activist George Helm and his cousin Kimo Mitchell disappeared in rough seas during a trip to rescue other bombing protesters who were hiding on the island.

The U.S. government finally agreed to pull the troops out in 1990.

Under a deal brokered by Sen. Daniel Inouye in 1994, the federal government set aside $400 million for cleanup efforts. Out of that, $44 million was appropriated to the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, a state agency created to restore the island.

By 2004, the Navy had used up all the funding that it had received, but it only cleared all ordnance from 75 percent of the land’s surface; not the 100 percent agreed upon, according to Michael Nahoopii, executive director of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission. The Navy was also supposed to clear ordnance from 25 percent of the ground’s subsurface, to a depth of four feet, but only cleared 9 percent, he said.

Solomon chastised the federal government for leaving the rest of the cleanup to the state. “This was a deal made with the federal government. All the Hawaiians signed on,” she said angrily. “Let’s get real about it. George Helm dies. People gave their lives. … Now, they just walk from the table?”

That, she argues, is why Hawaii should sue the Navy.

Nahoopii estimates that it would cost roughly $100 million to complete the cleanup.

Meanwhile, as state senators contemplate a lawsuit against the military, the state’s portion of the federal funds to restore Kahoolawe is also running out. Only $6.5 million remained in the trust fund as of July 2012, according to a state auditor’s report released last month. The fund is expected to be used up before the end of 2016. After 18 years, just 13 percent of the area in the state’s own rehabilitation area has been fully restored.

The auditor’s report blamed slow progress there on the failure of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission to come up with a comprehensive restoration plan with an outline of costs and a time frame for completion.

Nahoopii, who is seeking $3 million from the legislature, said that he was actively working on a 12-year strategic plan to restore the island.

One day, state law says, Kahoolawe is to be returned to a sovereign Hawaiian entity that is formally recognized by the federal and state governments.

About the Author