A proposed military munitions depot at West Loch that would begin construction in 2022 has prompted complaints from community members who feel they’re being kept in the dark.

The project would see the Army move its munitions from its current storage magazines at the Navy’s Lualualei Annex near Waianae on the leeward side to West Loch Annex as part of a broader move to consolidate military logistics on the island.

The military argues that in the long term it will be safer and more convenient to move the explosives, but some residents feel that the ordnance will be too close to densely populated communities including Ewa and Waipahu.

Local concerns are colored by the fact that West Loch was the scene of an infamous accidental ordnance explosion in 1944 that killed more than 100 people but was covered up by the military for years. Several neighbors of the project feel that the military hasn’t done enough to inform the public about what it’s doing now and why.

A map from the environmental assessment shows the proposed location of the new ordnance storage facility. 

The public comment window originally closed on Sept. 8, but the Navy extended it to Friday when many residents complained they had only just heard of it. Residents can leave feedback online, but local officials and some residents are calling for a public hearing.

“This is a big enough thing that they should hold a public meeting,” said Ewa Neighborhood Board member John Rogers. “I think it’s the courteous thing to do for the community.”

At the beginning of the month state Sen. Mike Gabbard wrote to the Navy at Rogers’ request asking for an extension of the comment deadline and for a public hearing.

Capt. James Meyer, the commanding officer for Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Hawaii responded to Gabbard in an email, telling him that “while public hearings are not required (by the National Environmental Policy Act) in this case, comments are encouraged and this process affords for official consideration and reply to public comment.”

“He didn’t mention anything about a public hearing, which I think is totally lame,” Gabbard told Civil Beat.

One of the main contentions is questions about just what sort of munitions the military will be storing at West Loch, and in what volume. In a joint statement to Civil Beat, Army and Navy officials said that “specific ammunition types and explosive amounts are considered sensitive information, which is why they and the exact (safety) calculations are not disclosed to the public.”

“This is less than a mile from a developed community. And somehow, they just assumed I guess nobody’s going to notice this,” said John Bond, a local community member and military historian. “But this is a big deal.”

Military officials insisted that they have been aggressive in their outreach efforts. They sent the environmental assessment to the neighborhood board chairs for Waipahu, Ewa and Maili/Nanakuli for distribution to their respective boards.

In a joint statement, Army and Navy officials told Civil Beat they also put notices for the 30-day public review and comment period in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Aug. 9, 10 and 11, in the Office of Environmental Quality Control’s August Environmental Notice, and distributed copies of the environmental assessment to the Pearl City, Ewa Beach and Hawaii State libraries. 

Local resident Haunani Hess said she’s bothered by the lack of a public hearing. She said that she understands the pandemic presents challenges for holding one, but argued it should be possible to do an event online.

This week the Navy announced it will deliver a digital public hearing later this month for a proposed submarine dry dock.

But Hess also noted that she doesn’t expect public input to have any actual impact on what the military does.

“They’ll take our comments and put them in the trash, like they usually do,” she said.

Move Is 25 Years In The Works

The move from Lualualei is part of a long-planned restructure based on findings of a 1995 land use study the military prepared at the request of the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye. 

The study’s findings would require the Army to either relocate its Lualualei Annex functions or to assume management of the Annex,” the environmental assessment notes. “The Army does not wish to assume management of Lualualei Annex, and the Navy may have other future uses planned for the area.”

The Army and Navy agreed on a longterm plan to consolidate at West Loch Annex, eventually moving all ordnance from Lualualei Annex. The Navy is also planning on building 24 new box storage magazines at West Loch. On Aug. 10 the Navy awarded Honolulu construction contractor Nan Inc. $33.5 million to build them.

“The facilities at Lualualei Annex are approaching the end of their useful life and need major revitalization work in order to make them suitable for today’s weaponry,” the assessment states. The current facilities were built between 1932 and 1942 and were originally designed for a railway transport system.

The environmental assessment also presented renovating the Lualualei facilities as an alternative, but moving munitions to West Loch is the military’s strongly preferred solution.

Farmers at Ma’o farms work in the field with the USN VLF Lualualei base in the background.
Farmers at Ma‘o farms work in the field with the Navy’s Lualualei base in the background. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

While critics of the move argue that stockpiling munitions at West Loch poses a threat to surrounding communities, the Navy’s assessment found the move would have a beneficial impact on public safety.

The assessment argued that “residential communities would remain located outside of explosive safety zones” and “the proposed storage of ordnance at West Loch Annex would reduce the transportation of ordnance on public roadways.”

In their statement, military officials noted that the safety buffer zone is “determined by the design of the magazine and amount of explosives permitted to be stored inside.”

Rogers, a Navy veteran who served aboard submarines, said that the lack of information in the environmental assessment is very different than other military documents he’s read, even those meant for public release.

“Normally they give some methods of how they determine that,” he said of the safety calculations. “There’s very little of that here.”

Rogers also questions whether this project will actually cut down on the movement of munitions on roads as the military will still need to convoy them from West Loch to training areas around Schofield Barracks. He wants to know how the military determined it would cut down on traffic.

“They don’t justify that claim at all,” he said. “I understand that some of that is sensitive information, but you can provide just some basic statistics.”

Hess said that ultimately, she considers the military’s safety zone calculations irrelevant when it comes to public comments if the public doesn’t know what they are.

“If we don’t know what they’re storing we have to just blindly trust that it’s in compliance with this blast radius,” she said. “To me that’s inconceivable. This is a densely populated area.”

A Secret Disaster

On May 21, 1944, sailors, Marines and soldiers were all working on several vessels docked at West Loch loading munitions to support Operation Forager, the invasion of Japanese-occupied Saipan.

At 3:08 p.m. something caused an explosion aboard the troop carrier LST-353 near the bow where soldiers were handling mortar rounds. More blasts of increasing intensity followed, raining burning debris on nearby vessels. The debris ignited fuel and munitions stored on their decks, setting off an explosive chain reaction.

Some vessels managed to navigate their way to safety. Others were abandoned and allowed to drift in the channel leaking oil. The oil spread across the water and caught fire, igniting piers and shoreline. The fires raged for over 24 hours before more tugboats and salvage ships from Pearl Harbor managed to contain the spreading fires. 

The military ordered a press blackout. Survivors were explicitly ordered not to mention the incident in letters home or to speak of it. Four days after the incident officials released a notice acknowledging an explosion had occurred causing “some loss of life, a number of injuries and resulted in the destruction of several small vessels.”

The aftermath of the 1944 West Loch disaster, which killed at least 163 people. The military kept the incident secret until the 1960s. U.S. Army Signal Corps/1944

Six LSTs sank and several others were heavily damaged. The military’s official investigation determined that the most likely cause of the explosion was mishandled ammunition, probably a soldier dropping a mortar round and causing a chain reaction. 

Officially, 163 died and 396 were injured, though some historians believe shoddy record-keeping by the Army in a rush to keep Operation Forager on track could have left more than 100 uncounted. The disaster ultimately delayed the attack on Saipan by only one day.

About a third of the casualties that day were Black members of the Army’s segregated 29th Chemical Decontamination Company. During the war Black troops were often assigned menial, but sometimes dangerous, tasks.

Bodies that were too badly burned or mutilated to be identified were buried at 36 grave sites at the Punchbowl cemetery. The headstones were originally marked simply “Unknown,” but have since been updated with the inscription “Unknown, West Loch Disaster, May 21, 1944.”

Two months after the West Loch disaster another munitions explosion killed hundreds more service members at Port Chicago in California. A munitions loading accident led to explosions that killed 320 sailors and wounded 390, most of them Black. A month later Black sailors at Port Chicago mutinied due to continued unsafe conditions.

Changing Communities

The West Loch and Port Chicago disasters led the Navy to change the way it handled munitions, as well as helped spur the military to begin desegregating its ranks. But the West Loch disaster would remain secret until the military finally declassified all files on the incident in 1962.

Bond said that in collecting oral histories of the war years, locals who lived nearby told him they remembered the sounds of the explosions and smoke, but knew little of what was going on.

“Their teachers made everybody, you know, close the curtains and look away, because they all knew you weren’t supposed to ever talk about anything,” Bond said.

Hess said that the history of the West Loch disaster is on her mind when she thinks of weapons being stockpiled there. She can see lights from the West Loch Annex at night from her home. “These sorts of accidents do happen,” she said.

While the Navy has conducted operations in Pearl Harbor continuously over the years, the surrounding communities have grown and changed significantly. Nearby Ewa Beach, once a relatively small rural seaside community made up of local agricultural workers, service members and their families has become a growing residential center.

Pearl Harbor National Wildlife Refuge aerial West Loch Waipahu HART Rail Operations aerial1.
An aerial view of West Loch. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hess said that she believes tension between the U.S. and China over Taiwan and the South China Sea is driving the military to streamline its systems to prepare for faster deployments. 

“I get how at one time it made sense to use that port,” said Hess. But she said times have changed and that the military has to acknowledge that.

“It’s dangerous to try to fit that sort of military might, that destructive power, in such a small area,” she said.

Bond said that the rapid growth of communities around West Loch coincided in part with the end of the Cold War when it felt as though the military was downsizing. He believes the military’s renewed focus on confronting China is prompting a buildup in Hawaii that’s clashing with communities that have grown in areas where military planners aren’t used to being challenged.

Hess is Native Hawaiian but comes from a military family; her father is a retired infantry officer. She said she understands the military’s desire for secrecy and its logistical challenges.

“I get the dilemma,” she said. “But does that make it okay? I don’t think so.”

Gabbard expressed more sympathy for military officials when it comes to secrecy around the exact makeup of the munitions the Army will store, acknowledging security concerns.

But he also stressed that with unease and rumors floating around the community it would benefit both the military and the community to hold a public hearing. 

“That way we can deal with the facts,” Gabbard said.

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