Hawaii studies on Strykers, Makua done
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By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
An Army environmental study of where to permanently station Hawai'i's Stryker brigade has been completed, officials said, and expectations are the decision will be made to keep the armored vehicle brigade here.
However, opponents are ready to challenge the decision as soon as it's released publicly — possibly as early as February — saying the Army still hasn't adequately addressed alternative locations, as required by federal environmental law.
Lt. Gen. John M. Brown III, the commander of U.S. Army Pacific, with headquarters at Fort Shafter, recently said at a Chamber of Commerce of Hawai'i meeting that both an environmental impact statement for the Stryker brigade and a long-stalled study of military training in Makua Valley have been completed.
Brown said an announcement would be made in the near future about Makua, and decisions by Army brass on the Stryker brigade will be made "in coming weeks, not months."
The studies represent a milestone for two of the Army's most controversial efforts in Hawai'i. The Pentagon is reviewing both studies, and the results of the Stryker brigade decision are expected first, followed sometime afterward by the Makua study.
But both decisions are likely to be the subject of continuing court challenges, which, in the case of Makua, have kept live-fire training out of the 4,190-acre Wai'anae Coast valley since 2004.
"I can assure you that we will be vigilant to make sure we don't allow anything to go forward that doesn't adequately protect Hawai'i's environment and isn't based on legally adequate analysis," said David Henkin, a lawyer with the environmental law firm Earthjustice.
In October 2006 the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Army violated the law by not adequately considering alternative locations outside Hawai'i for the $1.5 billion Stryker brigade.
The court ordered the Army to complete the study. Its outcome will determine whether the 4,000 Stryker brigade soldiers now deployed to Iraq with 328 of the eight-wheeled vehicles will return late this year or early in 2009 to Schofield Barracks, Fort Richardson in Alaska, or Fort Carson in Colorado.
"I am pleased that the supplemental EIS process is nearing completion," U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, said of the Stryker study. "I hope the decision will favor Hawai'i as the location for the Stryker brigade, and that this result will be acceptable to the people of Hawai'i. It will, without question, add a critical capability in our strategic mission to maintain peace and stability in this volatile region."
Also at stake: nearly $700 million in construction projects for the Stryker brigade on O'ahu and the Big Island.
Some of those projects were completed; others were halted. Officials said if the decision is made to keep the Stryker brigade in Hawai'i, as expected, previous contracts will remain in effect, rather than having to rebid the work.
'HUGE PROBLEMS' NOTED
Henkin represents Hawaiian groups 'Ilio'ulaokalani Coalition, Na 'Imi Pono and Kipuka in a 2004 lawsuit charging that the Stryker project would damage Native Hawaiian cultural sites and harm endangered species and their habitats. He said there are "huge problems" with the draft environmental impact statement previously released by the Army.
Henkin said the two biggest problems are the Army's failure to consider a reasonable number of alternative locations for the Stryker brigade, and lack of analysis of the impacts of any brigade that could conceivably replace the Stryker brigade in Hawai'i.
The Army didn't examine Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort Lewis in Washington state, the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, or the Yakima Training Center, also in Washington state, Henkin said.
Geographically, Fort Lewis units could respond to some Asian hot spots faster than a brigade in Hawai'i, but supporters of the Hawai'i basing have said that strategically it makes sense to have such a unit in the Pacific.
"The Army, if it's really concerned about bringing these (environmental) processes to a close in an efficient manner, should be taking seriously those comments, so they don't find themselves in additional rounds of litigation," Henkin said.
Under a 2001 court settlement with Earthjustice and the community group Malama Makua, the Army agreed to conduct an environmental impact statement of the more than 75 years of military training in Makua Valley.
"The Army was very challenged in being able to accomplish what was required there," Brown said of the Makua environmental study.
Brown said the Army agreed to do the environmental impact statement, and then, after negotiations and discussions, agreed to do other studies.
No live-fire training has been conducted in the valley for nearly three years because the Army hadn't completed the report.
The EIS was supposed to be completed by October 2004, but remained unfinished in part because of a fire that was intentionally set by the Army in 2003 to manage grasses but which got out of control and charred half the valley.
Henkin said the Army hasn't followed through with agreed-upon studies of the impact of military training on the marine environment, and subsurface archaeological surveys for ancient Hawaiian sites.
"One is left wondering, as one often is in the context of Makua, why?" Henkin said. "Why are they doing this? It would not be difficult for them to do it right."
Col. Wayne Shanks, chief of public affairs for U.S. Army Pacific, issued a statement saying: "The Army makes every effort to ensure its EIS's are in full compliance with applicable laws and regulations. The Army received many substantive comments during a rigorous (EIS) process and is carefully considering all public input in this decision-making process prior to issuing any final documents.
"This process takes into consideration an extremely thorough and detailed analysis. We believe that when these documents are released, the public will see that the Army is a good steward of the lands entrusted to us."
MAKUA USE 'CRITICAL'
Army commanders in the past had broached the possibility of getting out of Makua Valley as additional training ranges and facilities were planned for the Stryker brigade.
But last April the Army issued a report saying a return to company-size live-fire training at Makua Valley was "absolutely critical" for training.
The only possible alternative would be to spend as much as $600 million to build up similar training capabilities at Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island, an effort that would take seven to 12 years, the Army said.
The report, which was issued in response to a congressional mandate for the Army to study alternatives to Makua's use, drew a rebuke from U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i.
Abercrombie said the Army had spent millions to unsuccessfully defend in court the use of a training range that can be replaced and is ill-suited in particular to Stryker brigade training.
The military's attempt to hold on to Makua, a place of importance to Hawaiians, has become a "symbol of arrogance, a symbol of indifference to Hawaiians, indifference to the land," Abercrombie said.
Reach William Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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