Army's Stryker request on hold
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By Ken Kobayashi
Advertiser Courts Writer
By Ken Kobayashi
The Army's bid to lift a court order and proceed with Stryker brigade training was delivered a setback yesterday when a federal judge ruled that he won't hear the matter until next month.
U.S. District Judge David Ezra ruled that three Hawaiian and environmental groups opposing the Army's request are entitled to get more information about six Stryker-related projects that the Army wants to resume.
Justice Department lawyers contended that the information wasn't necessary for the judge to proceed and that allowing the groups to obtain the information would delay a ruling on the Army's request.
Ezra said he was limiting what the groups could get, but made it clear he believes his decision on the Army's bid would be overturned by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals if the groups are barred from getting the information.
"You will find yourself in a worse position than you are now," the judge told Justice Department lawyers.
The judge set a hearing for Dec. 18 on the Army's request. He said he will issue a ruling shortly after that.
The hearing yesterday was another step in what is expected to be two or three years of litigation over the groups' lawsuit that the Army violated federal environmental laws by not considering alternatives outside of Hawai'i for the training and development of the Stryker brigade.
The Army wants to transform the 2nd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division (Light) into a Stryker Brigade Combat Team and be ready for deployment to Iraq in November 2007. The unit has 328 armored vehicles and 3,900 soldiers.
As a reflection of the intense interest in the case, the hearing drew an overflowing crowd of supporters of the three groups as well as military personnel and civilian workers supporting the Stryker projects that would create construction jobs.
Ezra, however, said he believed the three groups are entitled to the information that would help him issue a ruling that would uphold federal laws protecting cultural and endangered species sites without jeopardizing the lives of American soldiers.
Lt. Col. John C. Williams, a spokesman for U.S. Army, Pacific, said he could not speculate on what impact the court's decisions would have on the Army.
"We will continue doing what we can to ensure these soldiers get the best training, best equipment possible, before deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else," he said.
He said Ezra wants to "make sure he has as much information as possible."
"That's part of the legal process. We understand it and we abide by it," he said.
The three groups — Ili'ulaokalani Coalition, Na 'Imi Pono and Kipuka — sued to halt the Stryker project in 2004.
Ezra denied their request, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued decisions in October halting Stryker activities until the Army completes an environmental analysis considering other alternatives to establishing the brigade in Hawai'i.
The Army returned to court yesterday asking that it be permitted to proceed with five of 28 Stryker brigade-related projects and a modification of a training range. The Army contends that there are no endangered or threatened species in those areas and that its measures to protect cultural sites have been effective.
Among the projects is the completion of a qualification training range, a motor park and maintenance area, an urban assault course and a multiple deployment facility.
David Henkin, Earthjustice lawyer representing the groups, said they appreciated that Ezra recognized they are entitled to the facts rather than the Army's own statements that they are entitled to move forward.
He said cultural and endangered species sites will be damaged or destroyed if the Army resumes the Stryker activities.
"We are confident the evidence will show that they can keep soldiers safe and comply with the law," Henkin said.
Reach Ken Kobayashi at firstname.lastname@example.org.