Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Nicky Wee, at left, and Crystal Jiles held signs outside
the federal building yesterday supporting efforts to stop
the U.S. Army from conducting live-fire exercises in Makua Valley.

Army tells judge
it needs Makua
Valley for training

But opponents are guardedly
upbeat after yesterday's hearing,
and a decision is due soon

By Gregg K. Kakesako

Some opponents were "cautiously optimistic" following a federal hearing on a request to temporarily halt the Army's use of Makua Valley for live-fire training while more studies are conducted.

Bill Aila, who was among the nearly 40 Waianae residents to fill the federal courtroom yesterday, said he took hope in the line of questioning by Federal Judge Susan Oki Mollway, who wanted to know the harm that would be caused if she granted a request for an injunction by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.

"Makua is a special place," said Aila, whose uncle is buried in the valley. "There are more than 1,000 historical sites there, not just the 17 the Army cites."

Mollway said she hope to render a decision in a few days.

Earthjustice, representing Malama Makua, a group of Leeward Oahu residents, wants the injunction to prevent the 25th Infantry Division from resuming training operations until it completes a more detailed environmental impact statement.

But the Army stands by an environmental assessment that concluded there would be "no significant impact" from renewed training because the number of soldiers who would train in Makua would be reduced and certain weapons banned.

The Army based its arguments on the findings of state historical preservation officials and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who have said reopening the range would not jeopardize cultural sites or endangered species if the Army modifies its training.

During yesterday's 90-minute hearing on Earthjustice's request, Mollway asked Col. David Howlett, lawyer with the U.S. Army Environmental Law Center, about the effect of postponing training while the merits of an environmental impact statement are argued.

Howlett said "the harm is cumulative" since the 25th Infantry Division, the primary user of the 456-acre training range in Makua, needs to cycle its 18 companies of soldiers through the range annually.

"Each time someone leaves," Howlett added, "you lose that experience. The cumulative harm to us is intangible, but it's real to us. It gets worse the longer this continues."

Makua is just one of several training sites worldwide where the U.S. military is facing problems. In the past, training and firing ranges were in remote areas, but now urban development and environmental concerns are encroaching.

>> A month ago, President Bush said he will close a Navy bombing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques in two years.

>> In the Pacific, environmentalists have sued to halt Navy bombing on Farallon de Medinilla -- an uninhabited island in the Northern Marianas -- because it is a breeding ground for migratory birds.

>> At Fort Irwin, Calif., desert tortoises have slowed plans by the Army to expand its National Training Center.

After yesterday's hearing, Gov. Ben Cayetano said: "The Army has gone to great lengths to address the concerns of some of the people out there. Makua is needed for training purposes. Whether we like it or not, the young men and women in our armed forces need that kind of training."

In 1998 the Army suspended operations in Makua after an infantry mortar set off a fire that burned 800 acres of the valley.

Fire, whether ignited by training rounds or by the Army itself to control noxious plants, is the greatest threat to the 54 endangered species and plants in the valley, since fires can easily spread upslope to the valley's rim, where almost all of the endangered species are found.

David Henkin, Earthjustice attorney, said in court yesterday that the Army's environmental assessment was inadequate because it failed to address the effectiveness of the Army's firefighting plans and did not address the community's desire to visit certain cultural sites.

"When fires start," Henkin added, "there is the potential danger to those sites by people using fire-suppression equipment."

He also said that 25 percent of the valley has not been surveyed for historical and cultural sites, probably because of the danger of unexploded munitions.

Howlett said the Army's modified training program bans the use of high-incendiary weapons --- such a antitank missiles and rockets -- which were responsible for 65 percent of the fires between 1970-98.

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