The bullets and bombs were left on the range there 80 years ago, but the U.S. military is still cleaning up the mess.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to survey 13,500 acres of Hawaii island’s former Waikoloa Maneuver Area, a World War II-era bombing range that is no longer in use.

The surveying will guide the eventual sweep for unexploded ordnance from two sectors of WMA, which represents just over 10% of 100,000 acres once used by U.S. Marines for training in the area.

The threat of unexploded ordnance, known as UXO, has been a hazard for decades throughout the South Kohala District and residents have taken issue with the pace of the work since 1993, as it influences development, among other things.

Hapuna Beach sign warning about unexploded ordinance in this forming military training area in Kona, Hawaii.
A sign at Hapuna Beach on the Kona coast warns of unexploded ordnance. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

The Army Corps of Engineers, charged with the remediation work, is now seeking permission to enter property owners’ land to conduct the UXO survey work with digital mapping and handheld metal detectors.

Any suspicious items will be dug up too, which could require some evacuations in the area, according to Steven Brown of HydroGeoLogic, the contractor doing the work.

Sector 16 covers 6,600 acres in the northwest section of the WMA adjacent to Kawaihae Road which forms the southern boundary. (Courtesy: USACE)

The soil will also be sampled to investigate whether contaminants had leeched from UXO.

The approximately 13,500 acres of land are dubbed sectors 16 and 17 — WMA has 22 sectors — which fall between Waimea and Kawaihae Harbor, and along the coast between Kawaihae and Anaehoomalu Bay.

Much of the work across WMA’s entirety, especially since the early 2000s, represented the “low hanging fruit” because the work focused on visible, ground-level UXO and debris, WMA Program Manager David Griffin said.

Sector 17 is 6,874.6 acres in the western area of the Former Waikoloa Maneuver Area. (Courtesy: USACE)

That means some landowners are being asked to allow surveying teams back onto their land, an issue that was raised at community meetings held by USACE on Wednesday.

“It’s gone on for years, this whole process,” Waimea Community Association President James Hustace said. “There’s just this concern that they don’t get it right the first time.”

The required five-year review from USACE also fueled concerns, he said.

There have been some shortcomings in the data due to the level of technologies previously used, according to Griffin.

The investigation process for the area between Waimea and Kawaihae Harbor began in 2018, when two grenades and grenade fragments were found, which indicated there should be some more work done.

Now it’s a matter of “having to use better technology to get the stuff that’s harder to find,” Griffin said, acknowledging the technology was unlikely to be a silver bullet.

Kawaihae on Hawaii island, July 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Kawaihae Harbor falls under the former Waikoloa Maneuver Area, as does the land southward, past Mauna Kea Resort. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The corps hopes to begin the work in January and finish by October 2024. A report will be written by September 2025, which will be made available for public comment.

The current work represents the halfway point of a three-phase remediation process mandated under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, a “superfund” administered by the Environmental Protection Agency since its 1980 enactment.

If everything stays on schedule, Griffin says, USACE will release a proposed action plan for the two sectors by 2027.

Much of that relies upon gaining permission to work on people’s land, which means landowners can stifle progress.

“It depends on the community a little bit,” Griffin said.

More than 2,700 munitions and 120 tons of debris have been removed from WMA since the work began in 1993, while mortars, grenades, rockets and fragments of UXO have been found in both sectors 16 and 17.

The Mk 2 grenade was a fragmenting hand grenade that was used by U.S. forces throughout WWII. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022)

But true progress, according to Griffin, is best measured in how many sectors have passed through the legal processes laid out with EPA’s superfund regulations. That leaves the work about 10% done.

Given the stretches of land that fall under the corps’ jurisdiction, the sectors have been prioritized in collaboration with the state, whose departments help inform the work.

Effectively, contamination and risk are weighed with human safety and opportunity — for things like affordable housing projects.

In early August, a patch of about 11,000 acres that includes Department of Hawaiian Home Lands properties reached that final stage, when USACE completed the legal steps and deemed it safe. The process is likely to be finalized at the end of this year.

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