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Old helicopter landing pads sit idle with equipment stained red by rust.
Orange signs line unpaved roads, warning of unexploded ordnance.
Quonset huts filled with old tools and machinery gather cobwebs as their roofs cave in.
And if you’re not careful, the worst of the island’s ghosts might blow you up.
Kahoolawe was used as target practice throughout the Cold War. After bombing ceased in 1990, the Navy spent $344 million to clear the unexploded ordnance.
But just 75 percent of the ordnance on the island’s surface was removed, and since then, relentless erosion has revealed even more shells and bombs. Because Kahoolawe’s surrounding waters weren’t cleared, additional ordnance sometimes washes up on the beaches.
“It was taking a long time to work out these agreements about how the work was going to be done, and meanwhile the clock’s running.” — Becky Hommon, environmental counsel for the Navy in Hawaii
Public officials are wrestling with the question of whether — and how — to pursue money to remove the rest of the explosives from the island.
The political climate has vastly changed since Hawaii’s congressional delegation secured $400 million in federal funds to clean up Kahoolawe in 1993. And the island is just one of dozens of sites littered with unexploded ordnance in Hawaii, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates could take a century to clear.
Many people insist the Navy has an obligation to finish clearing Kahoolawe, which is considered sacred by some Hawaiians and is set aside as land that will belong to the future Hawaiian government.
As state lawmakers deliberate whether to allocate funds to help control erosion on the island and plant native vegetation, some have questioned whether it’s time to sue the Navy to get it to finish cleaning up munitions.
For now, Kahoolawe remains mostly uninhabitable, its beaches empty except for feral cats and debris that washes ashore.
“Cursed island.” “Target island.” “Island of death.”
Kahoolawe’s various nicknames reflect its reputation as “the most bombed island in the Pacific,” where the Navy spent decades using nearly every kind of conventional weapon. The 28,800-acre island was first used by Army pilots in the 1930s, but was taken over completely by the Navy after World War II.
During the years of bombardment, Maui residents who were seven or more miles away complained about shattered glass from the shock waves.
In 1969, the Navy accidentally dropped a 500-pound bomb on a Maui cow pasture belonging to then-Mayor Elmer Carvalho.
By 1976, opposition to Kahoolawe gained traction as a popular environmental and indigenous rights issue. Finally, in 1990, President George H.W. Bush ordered the bombing to stop.
Former military bases that are transferred to a state generally go through a cleanup process handled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the Department of Defense with oversight from the Environmental Protection Agency.
But because Kahoolawe was uninhabited and didn’t pose immediate public safety risks, Sen. Daniel Inouye knew it wouldn’t be prioritized for receiving federal funds, said Jennifer Sabas, the late senator’s former chief of staff.
Inouye instead pushed for legislation in 1993 that would set aside $400 million for a 10-year cleanup.
Sabas said the $400 million estimate was pulled “out of the air” and based on best guesses from the Pentagon and Inouye’s colleagues. Inouye’s office was “trying to do as best we could with the politics at that time,” she said.
The Navy contractor in charge of the cleanup was Parsons-UXB, a joint venture between California-based Parsons Infrastructure & Technology Group Inc. and Virginia-based UXB International Inc.
The companies scored a total contract of $344 million and removed more than 28,600 pieces of unexploded ordnance from Kahoolawe, including guided missiles, projectiles, grenades and bombs. More than 13 million pieces of scrap metal, batteries, tires and other materials were also cleared.
Despite that, Parsons-UXB didn’t meet the goal of clearing ordnance from the surface of the entire island.
Various challenges forced the contractor to innovate and change tactics in the field. Kahoolawe’s red dirt had high levels of iron, requiring officials to discard traditional tools for detecting munitions. The rough topography also made it difficult to clear some areas.
There were problems, too, with Parsons-UXB’s organization and methods, according to the contractor’s final report on the cleanup.
Parsons-UXB was a joint venture between two companies, and chronically absent employees went undisciplined because there wasn’t a clear organizational hierarchy. Leaders had trouble managing teams made up of employees from different companies.
The contractor also dedicated resources to detailed documentation in order to guard against liability issues and create a framework for future cleanups. But the collection of data on paper, rather than digitally, was time-consuming and made it tough to see results and make timely adjustments.
Ultimately, Parsons-UXB spent just $135 million on actually clearing the munitions. Another $80 million was spent on transportation alone, as the contractor relied mainly on helicopters to transport employees and equipment.
Other costs included about $35 million for program management, $14 million for area assessment and $9 million to build the main unpaved road that winds through the island, expenses detailed in the contractor’s final report .
In addition to the $344 million that was spent on the full-scale clean-up, about $20 million was spent on a model cleanup by BioGenesis. The Navy still has $17 million left over in a trust fund.
Cleanups of former military training ranges throughout the nation have been plagued by high costs, slow progress and unmet goals.
Kahoolawe was no exception. The difference was the Kahoolawe cleanup had a 10-year time limit; the longer it took for officials to get the work started, the less work would get done.
Although the funding was secured in 1993, the full-scale cleanup by Parsons-UXB didn’t kick off until 1999.
Becky Hommon, environmental counsel for the Navy in Hawaii, blamed the state for the delay.
“It was taking a long time to work out these agreements about how the work was going to be done, and meanwhile the clock’s running,” she said.
Hommon deflected a question about what the Navy could have done to accomplish more within that time period. “I think you could ask what mistakes were made on the state’s side if they hadn’t been trying to limit access to the island,” she said. She suggested the Navy could have saved money if it had built a port instead of relying on helicopters.
Michael Naho‘opi‘i disagrees. The executive director of the state’s Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission served as a project manager for the Navy contractor during the cleanup and said building a port wouldn’t have made sense.
“By the time the cleanup contract got awarded, you only had like six years left on the clock,” he said. “A port would have taken way longer (to build).”
But Naho‘opi‘i thinks the cleanup got started on time given the negotiations with the state, public outreach and area assessments that were required because the entire island is included in the National Register of Historic Places.
After the money was appropriated in 1993, the state came up with a use plan to direct cleanup efforts, and the Navy conducted a small-scale, model project that ended in 1996.
The contract for the full-scale cleanup was issued in 1997, and then the contractor had to come up with a plan and analyze how the work might affect the island’s thousands of archaeological artifacts before starting the cleanup in 1999, Naho‘opi‘i said.
Naho‘opi‘i thinks that the Navy could have cleared more ordnance with the allotted money if there hadn’t been a time limit for the project. The cleanup became more efficient over time due to better technology and mastering the best methods, he said.
Sabas from Inouye’s office said the senator imposed the time limit because he wanted to give the project finality.
“Hindsight is always 20/20,” she said. “When I look at what we were able to accomplish, it is what it is.”
Kahoolawe’s transfer to the state came as part of a wave of base closures at the end of the Cold War. Many of those munitions cleanups are ongoing, despite initially optimistic timeline projections.
Fort Ord is one of them. The 28,000-acre base in central California closed in 1994.
Although the base is the same size as Kahoolawe, it wasn’t subjected to the same level of aerial bombing, and less than 7,000 acres contain munitions. The Army has been clearing unexploded ordnance there since 2008, and the work is expected to last another eight to 10 years.
John Chestnutt of the Environmental Protection Agency estimated the cost of the Fort Ord cleanup will reach $750 million.
He wouldn’t be surprised if getting rid of unexploded ordnance on Kahoolawe would cost more than Fort Ord. Munitions removal is extremely labor-intensive, and Kahoolawe’s remoteness would make it hard for any contractor to use equipment that could make the process quicker.
“At Fort Ord it’s still incredibly resource intensive but it’s much more accessible,” Chestnutt said. “$400 million can be burned through quite quickly, particularly when you had to add in the logistical elements.”
One site that’s often been compared to Kahoolawe is the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico.
The Navy has already spent more than $200 million to clean up Vieques and plans to spend another $300 million, according to Daniel Rodriguez, an EPA remedial project manager overseeing the cleanup.
The Navy only leased two-thirds of the 33,000-acre island and the cleanup is only taking place on 15,000 acres, less than half the size of Kahoolawe.
John Waihee, governor of Hawaii in the early 1990s, recalled that state estimates for cleaning up the unexploded ordnance on Kahoolawe initially placed the cost at around $2 billion, even though only $400 million was set aside.
“But it was important to get started,” Waihee said.
Throughout Hawaii, 33 former defense sites are undergoing or awaiting cleanups, including Waikoloa, a World War II training ground that is the largest with unexploded ordnance in the nation.
The 100,000-acre area on the Big Island, which contains homes and even a school, is expected to take up to 70 years to clean up at a cost of $800 million. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is conducting the cleanup along with the Army with oversight from the Department of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Honolulu District of the Army Corps oversees the cleanup of 500 sites throughout Hawaii and the Pacific territories, including 100 with munitions. Thirty-three of them are in Hawaii, excluding Kahoolawe.
Joseph Bonfiglio of the Army Corps estimated that it will cost $1 billion to clear them all and would take 100 years at the current funding rate of $10 to $15 million. He added that they will never be 100 percent safe.
Honokoa is a brilliantly beautiful bay on the northwest side of Kahoolawe where Hawaiian King David Kalakaua is said to have once bathed.
Multi-colored coral covers the ocean floor along with the remnants of what could have been a fishpond, and the beach is filled with huge shells that are a welcome change from the kiawe thorns that stab through hiking shoes elsewhere on the island.
Parson-UXB’s final report indicates the contractor spent more than $28,000 per acre to clear the area to a depth of 4 feet. Despite that, rusted shell casings are still found near archaeological sites, likely due to erosion since the cleanup ended.
The trail leading to Honokoa is surrounded by land that the Navy cleared. But KIRC workers found a bomb there a few years ago, sticking a red flag in the ground to warn people who might wander off the trail.
The 1953 executive order that handed Kahoolawe over to the Navy required that that the island be “restored to a condition reasonably safe for human habitation when it is no longer needed for naval purposes.”
The Navy was also supposed to limit the number of “cloved-heeled animals” — namely, goats — to less than 200. The animals were responsible for ravaging the native vegetation and causing destructive erosion.
Instead, the Navy allowed the goat population to balloon to an estimated 50,000 by 1988, and had to eradicate them by 1992. Now, the state estimates that each year, Kahoolawe loses 1.9 million tons of soil due to erosion, according to KIRC.
That erosion can uncover bombs in many places that the Navy previously cleared. And more ordnance may wash up on beaches because nearby seawater has never been cleared of munitions.
When the cleanup ended, the Navy signed an agreement to come back and clear “newly discovered, previously undetected” ordnance if KIRC requests it.
Naho‘opi‘i said his staff has only called the Navy once, in 2008 when a firebomb igniter made of white phosphorous washed up on the beach. White phosphorous is extremely dangerous because it burns even under water, Naho‘opi‘i said.
Unexploded ordnance hasn’t injured anyone since KIRC took over in 2004. KIRC staff members are trained to identify munitions and visitors are repeatedly told, “If you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up.”
As the wind strips away the multi-million-dollar effort to clear the island, some people question whether the Navy’s cleanup was conducted properly and whether the state should sue the Navy to do more.
Although the memorandum of understanding between the Navy and the state provides for 100 percent of the island cleared on its surface, just 75 percent was cleared.
The Navy also agreed to clear 30 percent of the island up to 4 feet deep, but only finished 9 percent.
At a state Senate hearing last fall, Deputy Attorney General Ramona Somerville testified that in 2004, the AG’s Office had determined that there was sufficient claim to sue the Navy, but the Lingle administration chose not to.
Somerville did not reply to requests for comment. Anne Lopez, a spokeswoman at the Attorney General’s Office, also declined to comment, saying it was a matter of attorney-client privilege.
Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria told Civil Beat he would consider supporting a state lawsuit against the Navy to complete the cleanup.
“I think that we should take a look at all the arrows in the quiver and if that’s one of them then we should consider it,” Galuteria said. “Politics is such that it’s all about timing.”
But his colleague, Sen. Rosalyn Baker from Maui, thinks the federal government has invested as much as it could.
“In a perfect world we would go over and clear it up — the military would have done that,” Baker said. “But it’s probably not realistic at least for the foreseeable future. So you deal with the reality and move on.”
Hommon said the Navy completed the cleanup mandated in Sen. Inouye’s legislation because it was limited to a 10-year timeline. She said that Congress would have to appropriate more money for the Navy to resume the work.
In the current political climate, it’s seems unlikely that will happen.
Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono both expressed their support for clearing Kahoolawe, but neither has committed to requesting more funding from Congress.
The Navy’s 1972 environmental impact statement actually concluded that bombing Kahoolawe had “slightly improved the balance of the island’s ecosystems.”
The Navy said that pulverizing the soil could help vegetation grow, and bomb craters might collect rainfall. The report even claimed fragments of munitions could eventually prove economically beneficial as a source of metal.
Forty-two years later, the question is whether Kahoolawe will ever fully recover.
Just a 10-minute drive from KIRC’s base camp on Kahoolawe is a crater formed by the explosive force of 500 tons of TNT.
In 1965, the Navy simulated an atomic bomb explosion there to study the impact on ships offshore.
Hours before leaving the island after four days of volunteering, a group of students and teachers gather at the crater’s edge.
Like the Navy predicted, the crater does collect rainfall, as well as seawater. The water is still and beautiful. An old irrigation line, no longer in use, runs into the crater. Along the sides, some rocks have melted from the heat of the explosion.
Volunteers who minutes before had been laughing and talking suddenly grow silent as they stand or kneel beside the crater. Several cry. There is a palpable sense of loss, even horror.
Po‘okela Hanson is among them. The 31-year-old firefighter and longtime volunteer wishes that he hadn’t come.
When he looks at the crater, he feels empty and angry and depressed all at once.
“Sailor’s Hat is probably the most disturbing and saddening thing to see on that island,” he says. “You share the pain with the land.”
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