Hawai'i still at risk from old munitions
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
Ka'u Paio was digging in a garden at Waimea Middle School in 2002 on the Big Island with other students when the earth yielded something unexpected — a live hand grenade.
In 1999, a stretch of beach in Makaha was closed down after a boy found a grenade, its pin still in place, buried in the sand.
Seventeen-year-old James O'Hare was killed in 1971 when a 40 mm grenade exploded as he attempted to dismantle it. Police had said the youth found the explosive at the military's Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island.
In Hawai'i, unexploded ordnance, or UXO, is part of the landscape — the consequence of a defensive buildup pre-World War I and the massive rush to respond in World War II.
Millions have been spent by the federal government on cleanup. Hundreds of millions more are needed as new neighborhoods and more people encroach on formerly remote training ranges.
The reality, though, is that federal funding for that cleanup falls far short of the mark.
Under a federal UXO program for formerly used defense sites, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Honolulu District for fiscal 2006 received $14.5 million. Congress funds the entire national program at $254 million a year, officials said. By 2010, the Hawai'i funding is projected to drop to $12 million.
The 135,000-acre Waikoloa Maneuver Area cleanup on the Big Island, where grenades, bazooka rounds, artillery and mortar rounds, land mines and hedgehog missiles were used, is expected to cost $640 million alone.
The project, started in 2004, is funded at $10 million a year. At that rate, the removal of unexploded ordnance would take 64 years.
The Army Corps of Engineers lists 46 sites in Hawai'i as potentially having unexploded ordnance. Cleanup efforts have been conducted or are planned for just a few because of the cost.
Among the sites listed are popular or well-known spots that show how pervasive the problem is, including Dillingham Airfield, Makapu'u lighthouse, Goat Island, the base of the Pali lookout, Rabbit Island, Waimea Valley Audubon Center, Molokini crater and Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.
"There's no question about it — there is a UXO problem in Hawai'i, and it is becoming more acute with development and encroachment," said U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawai'i. "The fact is, we have 1.3 million people here running around plus a bunch of tourists."
Ordnance is offshore and on land. While diving off Wai'anae, scuba divemaster Cameron Guadiz has found 5-inch and 3-inch diameter shells.
"Probably hundreds scattered around," he said.
He's come across 5-foot torpedoes with fins and what looked to him like a coral-encrusted 500-pound bomb.
At least nine people have been killed or injured by old munitions in Hawai'i since the 1940s.
Case called the federal government's commitment to clean up the unexploded ordnance "woefully inadequate," not just in Hawai'i but nationwide.
"Basically, what we're talking about is $640 million to clean up Waikoloa versus a national budget for (the program) of $250-plus-million, so clearly, there's a problem all across the country," he said.
U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawai'i, also supports increased funding for unexploded ordnance removal.
"Unfortunately, current appropriations are not enough for the (Defense Department) to move forward with cleanup tasks," Akaka said.
In fiscal 2006, $254 million was appropriated nationally for unexploded ordnance cleanup under the formerly used defense site program, but in the Bush administration's budget request for 2007, that amount is reduced to $243 million, Case said.
The House proposed increasing it to $258 million, while the Senate has come out with a figure of $283 million.
The Army Corps of Engineers said it is difficult to estimate tonnage of unexploded ordnance in Hawai'i, in part because records rarely have such information. During World War II, "record keeping was not generally rigorous," the corps said.
Virtually all the formerly used defense properties received some type of cleanup, and there may be records of how much was removed, but nothing to indicate what remains.
Only California, Arizona and New Mexico have more total unexploded ordnance sites than Hawai'i, the Corps of Engineers said.
The formerly used defense site program covers military properties that were transferred before Oct. 17, 1986.
RECOGNIZE, RUN, REPORT
At Waikoloa, workers have removed 1,100 rounds of ordnance since 2004 from areas immediately adjacent to present neighborhoods.
Many who have grown up in Hawai'i are well familiar with military history and its dangers.
The Army Corps of Engineers said it instituted a public involvement program to inform residents what to do if unexploded ordnance is found, and has programs in schools. The Corps of Engineers stresses the "3 Rs" — recognize, run and report — for any munitions found.
The Corps of Engineers said unexploded ordnance cleanup is being conducted at the former Makawao Gunnery Site and at 'Opana Point Bombing Range on Maui.
On O'ahu, site work is being done at He'eia Combat Training Area and the Pali Training Camp on the windward side.
A 2004 Army Corps of Engineers report said the He'eia training area included 200 acres that supported 4,500 troops and pistol, rifle, grenade, bayonet and obstacle course ranges until 1945. Adjacent firing impact areas in Waihe'e and Ka'alaea valleys enlarged the area to 2,254 acres.
The Pali Training Camp included 1,500 acres at the base of the Pali in Maunawili Valley — now a hiking area — that was an artillery impact zone.
The report said "extensive portions of the project area pose a potential unexploded ordnance health and safety risk to the public."
Waikane Valley "is being considered for ordnance removal," the Army Corps of Engineers said, with an initial property assessment expected by October. Other assessments for possible cleanup also are under way.
The Marines had wanted to reactivate the valley as a training area, but studies showed it to be too thick with unexploded ordnance.
Military training ranges still in use, including the Makua Military Reservation and those on Schofield Barracks, are undergoing separate cleanups, and Kaho'olawe underwent a five-year, $400 million partial unexploded ordnance removal.
The Navy effort saw the removal of 5,000 tons of target-range scrap and shells and other military remains.
Schofield Barracks has been conducting a range cleanup for its new Stryker vehicles that was slowed by the discovery of chemical weapons, including chloropicrin and phosgene, both choking agents.
The reason for the old weapons' presence initially was a mystery, but Schofield spokesman Kendrick Washington recently said, "We suspect that these rounds were fired for military training or quality control testing during World War II."
Makua Valley, used by the military since the 1920s, when three tracts on the upper valley floor were purchased for howitzer emplacements, has seen $599,000 worth of cleanup, with more ongoing, officials said.
In 2004, explosive ordnance disposal experts detonated three World War II explosives in the valley, including a 1,000-pound, 500-pound and 100-pound bomb.
The Army said fixed-wing aircraft dropped bombs in the valley before, during and after World War II.
BEFORE THE WAR
The military buildup in Hawai'i predates World War II and includes the coastal defense network of guns that ringed O'ahu.
George Aguiilon, who grew up at the 'Ewa sugar plantation from 1928 through 1946, remembered military personnel test firing the large-bore guns at Fort Barrette in Kapolei. A concrete enclosure still remains.
"The sound and vibrations from the cannons not only shook the walls, it shook the roofs, telephone poles and knocked down the ripe mangoes (and) everything that was not nailed down in the house," he said.
While land-based training ranges still have unexploded ordnance that was fired, shore areas and deep-water regions around Hawai'i are rife with ordnance that was dumped.
Marine scientists, at the request of the Defense Department, in June conducted a survey of an area known as "Ordnance Reef" near Poka'i Bay off the Wai'anae Coast.
An Army Corps of Engineers survey in 2002 at Ordnance Reef identified more than 2,000 military munitions at depths ranging from 15 feet to 240 feet.
The follow-up report is due out in coming months.
HISTORY OF DUMPING
Publicity about the U.S. military's practice of dumping chemical and conventional weapons at sea decades ago led to data last year that 4,220 tons of hydrogen cyanide were dumped somewhere off Pearl Harbor in 1944.
During that year, the military also dumped 16,000 100-pound mustard bombs "about five miles off of O'ahu."
In 1945, off Wai'anae, the Army dumped thousands of hydrogen cyanide bombs, cyanogen chloride bombs, mustard bombs and lewisite containers. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration charts identified some as being in 1,600 feet of water.
A report on deep-water munitions sites in U.S. waters is due out at the end of the month.
Case commends the Defense Department for the examination, which will include a review of Navy archives for dumping.
"I believe that the (Defense Department) is doing the right thing in the right order on a reasonable time line with respect to marine munitions dumping," Case said.
How a possible cleanup will be paid for is unclear.
Hawai'i County Councilman Bob Jacobson in 2004 unsuccessfully sought the creation of a registry to record where all unexploded ordnance was found on the Big Island.
"There's a lot of stuff out there," he said. "Just past the breakwater in Hilo Harbor, it's my understanding there's just vast numbers of planes and bombs and all kinds of unexploded ordnance just dumped out there."
It's out of sight and out of mind underwater, or obscured by vegetation or buried. But it's there.
"I don't think people think about it," said Jacobson. "I think there's not a lot of disclosure.
"I think there are lots of areas they say were cleared, but because it was too expensive to get into gullies or gulches, they didn't really spend the time. The stuff is embedded underground and you don't see the bomb on the surface."Advertiser Staff Writer Kevin Dayton contributed to this report.
Reach William Cole at email@example.com.