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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 9, 2004

Kaho'olawe workers feel gratified as cleanup ends

 •  Contractor concludes Kaho'olawe cleanup

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

They worked hard and made history, but now the Kaho'olawe cleanup is over.

Allison Chun helped identify and protect endangered plants and animals on Kaho'olawe. She said the job was a "privilege."

Timothy Hurley • The Honolulu Advertiser

Today is the last day of the massive $400 million project, and most of the nearly 400 workers of Navy contractor Parsons-UXB Joint Venture have already gone on to something else or are looking for a new job. The remaining 140 or so workers were scrambling this week to clean up work areas and pack up equipment in time for the last barge today.

For the past 5 1/2 years, a force the size of an Army battalion was shuttled by helicopter from Maui to the former bombing range across the 'Alalakeiki Channel. Crews collected more than 10 million pounds of bombs, shells and scrap — enough metal to build a guided missile destroyer — as well as enough tires to stack a mile high.

It was difficult, dirty and dangerous work. One person died — civilian helicopter pilot Gary Freeman, 55, who was killed May 22 when a cable used to haul equipment hit his aircraft's rotor. Amazingly, there was only one ordnance-related accident, which occurred last month when an explosion left three workers with minor injuries.

Many employees said the job was extremely hard but gratifying. Native Hawaiian employees, in particular, said they felt extra job satisfaction in their role of helping to heal the land.

"Awesome," said Allison Chun, who worked on the project's natural resources team to identify and protect endangered plants and animals. "This is the best job I've ever had in my life. Being able to contribute to this historic project is beyond belief. It's just a privilege to be part of it all."

Chun saw baby monk seals and endangered caterpillars while working on Kaho'olawe during the past five years. She also earned her master's degree and doctorate from the University of Hawai'i.

"I'd like to remain as a volunteer or get involved in some way," she said. "No way can I just walk away. I know I'll be back doing something."

Lauren White of Makawao said working on the island would drain his energy and he would return home each day exhausted. But he didn't mind.

"It gives you a pretty good feeling knowing you're giving back to the community," he said.

White, 60, is a four-year Kaho'olawe employee who helped man the project's thermal processing unit, treating the ordnance for conversion to scrap metal. His son, Lopaka White, also signed on to help with range quality control.

Jack Imber, 50, was one of many former military members who found a job with Parsons UXB.

"I used to bomb the place in the '70s," he said. "As soon as I heard about this project, I knew that's what I wanted to do."

A former shipper/receiver for a California lumber company, Imber moved to Hawai'i just for the job. Now, he's among the employees aiming to go to Texas A&M University for classes in unexploded ordnance identification.

"Because this is what I want to do the rest of my life," he said.

John Langemak is a Vietnam veteran who said he enjoyed his year on the job.

"As a 'Nam vet, I've done my share of destroying the planet. It's nice to help and alleviate some of the BS we've done," he said.

Before Kaho'olawe, Langemak worked in the tourist industry. "It was nice to get away from that," said Langemak, who plans to relax, collect unemployment, do some traveling and take computer classes.

Gordon Valentine, a Big Island resident who inspected ordnance for treatment, said he is aware of the disappointment that more bombs weren't cleared from the island.

"We knew the amount of money wasn't enough. At least we got something done," he said. "As for myself, I did the best I could and I feel good about that."

Reach Timothy Hurley at (808) 244-4880 or thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com.