The aircraft is resting on coral in waters just off the Marine Corps base as officials develop a salvage plan.
Military leaders say the Navy plane that overshot a Marine Corps Base Hawaii runway and skidded into Kaneohe Bay during wet weather last week damaged some coral but managed not to leak any of its fuel, limiting potential harm to the surrounding environment.
They expressed regret at a news conference Monday for not sharing that update or their emerging plans to remove the P-8A Poseidon plane until a week after its crash amid community concerns over how the runway mishap might affect the bay’s fragile marine ecosystem.
“We’re mindful that we need to do better in communicating with our neighbors here about our progress, and that’s why we’re all here today,” Navy Rear Adm. Kevin Lenox, the recovery mission’s on-scene commander, told reporters gathered at the base on Kaneohe’s Mokapu Peninsula.
All nine people on board were uninjured, and that allowed base officials to quickly focus their efforts on limiting the crash’s environmental damage to Kaneohe Bay, said Col. Jeremy Beaven, the base’s commanding officer.
The area, Lenox added, is not just an important strategic military location but also a “critical ecosystem and a cherished part of the local community.”
On Sunday, Navy divers successfully removed “just about all” of the plane’s estimated 2,000 gallons of fuel without any of it leaking into the bay, Lenox said. It’s the first time a P-8A has been defueled underwater, and state officials monitored the defueling as it happened, he added.
Lenox, who commands the Carrier Strike Group 3 based in Washington state, said he’s aware of the local community’s distrust related to the Navy’s separate defueling effort on Oahu at Red Hill, after the underground tanks there leaked into the island’s aquifer and poisoned hundreds of nearby residents.
“My goal is to be open and transparent in everything we do here,” Lenox said of the developing salvage operation at Kaneohe. He added that he hopes to eventually share with the public the photographs that Navy divers are taking of coral at the crash site.
Currently, the P-8A is resting on what military leaders say is a mixture of coral and sand in waters some 200 feet offshore, facing almost perpendicular to the runway, which ends there.
Exactly what type of coral was impacted by the crash remains unclear.
A 500-yard buffer zone surrounds the eastern side of the peninsula on which the Marine Corps base sits and is off limits to non-Department of Defense civilians. Jacquelyn Bomar, National Environmental Policy Act program manager for the Marine Corps, did not respond to an email seeking comment Monday.
Navy Cmdr. Mark Anderson, who commands the Pearl Harbor-based Mobile Diving Salvage Unit 1, said that the plane’s left engine is resting on coral and that its front landing gear is making contact with coral.
Beaven said that officials started to surround the plane with floating containment booms minutes after the crash occurred, and that they had the plane fully surrounded about 30 minutes later. Crews have also anchored the plane so that it won’t shift and cause further damage, he added.
The aircraft has been monitored around the clock ever since then by multiple agencies, including the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Coast Guard, he added.
Now, Lenox and other military officials are weighing the best way to salvage the plane. Lenox said they’ll probably float it closer to shore and then either use a crane or special “roller bags” to roll the plane back up on the runway. Navy investigators are still looking into what caused the crash.
Officials didn’t have a timeline Monday on when either that investigation or the salvage operation would be done. Lenox said the salvage would be done “as soon and as safely” as possible in a way that minimizes any further environmental damage.
Civil Beat Reporter Madeleine Valera contributed to this story.
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