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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Budget cuts leave operations at Midway Atoll to 4-person crew

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Budget restrictions will force the Fish and Wildlife Service to shrink its presence on Midway Atoll to four people Sept. 30.

That means an end to the use of Midway's runways as emergency landing fields for trans-Pacific commercial airliners, one of which landed there as recently as this month because of an oil-pressure problem.

It also means no return to visitor operations, which were curtailed in 2002 when Midway Phoenix left amid complaints that Fish and Wildlife officials had made it impossible to run a profitable tourism operation on the island.

The service does not have the money to keep the atoll's major facilities operating, said Barbara Maxfield, spokeswoman for the service in Hawai'i. Contractor Chugach McKinley earlier this year was given a five-month, $3.3 million contract to maintain the airport and other facilities at Midway, with an option to continue the contract if money was available. Earlier this month, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it was facing a shutdown because of a lack of money.

"We are in the process of closing down the airport facility on Midway on Sept. 30," Maxfield said. "We are still looking for the funding that will allow us to continue the contract (to maintain operations) but we don't have those funds now."

The Fish and Wildlife Service is complying with a congressional mandate that it shut down the airport if other agencies and private firms that use Midway facilities did not pitch in the money to keep it going.

A number of federal and private organizations have used Midway as a refueling site for ships and aircraft, as a mid-oceanic rest stop and as an emergency airfield for commercial aircraft that run into difficulties over the Pacific.

The most recent such case occurred Sept. 4, when an Orient Thai Airlines L-1011 jet being ferried with a crew of three from Honolulu to Thailand suffered an oil-pressure problem in one engine. It landed at Midway. A mechanic was flown to the atoll Sept. 7 on a Lear jet, and the L-1011 was able to return to Honolulu the next day.

After Sept. 30, the runway will only be open to noncommercial flights, such as small plane charters that bring supplies and personnel to and from the refuge, Maxfield said.

The service has not determined how best to handle the shutdown, and how to keep minimal services — such as power, communications, water and sewage disposal — operational with a skeleton staff, Maxfield said.

Two Aloha Airlines charter flights, one Sept. 20 and one Sept. 27, will bring roughly 70 people and their gear off Midway. These include about 65 contractor personnel who have been running the facilities on the island, and a few Fish and Wildlife personnel. The agency will leave on the island its assistant refuge manager, a wildlife biologist and two veteran volunteers.

A barge is scheduled to arrive at Midway shortly to remove accumulated hazardous waste, such as used oil and batteries, and to deliver equipment for the continued cleanup of a large oil spill earlier this year. Maxfield said she anticipates staffers will be flown to the island during the coming weeks to continue the oil spill cleanup.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.