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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 21, 2008

Army sued again over access to Makua

Advertiser Staff

Earthjustice has made good on its pledge to take the U.S. Army back to court over what it sees as flagrant violations of a 2001 court-ordered settlement decree to allow Native Hawaiian groups cultural access to numerous sacred sites in the Makua Military Reservation.

The ecology-minded law firm, which represents Malama Makua among other cultural groups, filed a motion to enforce compliance yesterday in U.S. District Court. Earthjustice is asking the court to require the Army to fulfill the terms of the six-year-old settlement it voluntarily signed.

That agreement followed a lawsuit challenging the Army's failure to complete a required environmental impact statement for training at Makua Valley.

David Henkin, an attorney for Earthjustice, said yesterday that instead of opening up access to the valley, the Army has, since 2005, severely restricted cultural practices, citing safety concerns as the reason. Earthjustice contends the safety restrictions have been concocted to get around the settlement decree in order to eliminate nearly all cultural access.

The Army last night issued a written response saying "the Army has gone to great lengths to provide community access" and that any limitations on access have been prompted by safety concerns over unexploded ordnance that visitors could encounter.

The Army said it provided access to two more sites at Makua Military Reservation on Feb. 10 after making sure the areas were cleared of unexploded ordnance.

"The Army was already in consultation with Malama Makua and other consulting parties about providing additional access to recently cleared areas prior to the motion filed today," its statement said.

Howard Sugai, a spokesman for the Army's Installation Management Command at Fort Shafter, yesterday said the military is aware of the latest Earthjustice legal action and is taking it under advisement.

Last July, cultural groups were told they would no longer be allowed at four valley sites they had visited in the past. In November, Malama Makua and Hui Malama 'O Makua canceled a two-day traditional makahiki celebration because they said the military was deliberately too slow in removing a 250-pound World War II bomb uncovered at the reservation.

"By denying access, the Army is denying our right to practice our religion," said Malama Makua president Sparky Rodrigues.

Between 2001 and 2004, numerous cultural practitioners were allowed onto more than a dozen cultural sites without a problem, Henkin said. Then, in February 2005, the Army abruptly halted access to all but one location near the entrance of the reservation. Other sites were either off-limits completely or severely restricted, he said.

"That's where we've been for three years," said Henkin, who added that Earthjustice's efforts to negotiate an end to the impasse have come to nothing. "Not only are they required to let us into those sites, but under the agreement they were supposed to promptly take action to open up new areas that hadn't been accessed before. None of that has been done."

The Army noted that there is a shortage of military explosive disposal experts due to overseas deployments, and that the Army has had to contract civilian explosive ordnance disposal contractors.

The Army said it has spent more than $364,000 and 4,000 man-hours to clear roads and access areas of unexploded bombs, but did not specify what time period that covers.