Sunday, November 24, 2002

Chief Petty Officer Tracy Dixon, a Navy explosive-ordnance specialist who has worked on Kahoolawe since 1988, recently examined some of the rockets found on the island.

Clean sweep

The massive clearing of bombs and shells
from Kahoolawe falls to copter commuters

By Gregg K. Kakesako

KAHOOLAWE >> Elijah Mailou has to get up each morning at 4:30 and usually doesn't get back to his home in Wailuku until 5 in the evening, working a 10-hour day.

For Pamela Medeiros, 56, the job means she has to commute from her home on the slopes of Punchbowl each weekend to live with her sister on Maui.

But neither Mailou or Medeiros are complaining. They are part of the nearly 375 people who commute four days a week by helicopter from Maui to Kahoolawe to try to rid the island of unexploded ordnance. Nearly $400 million has been authorized for what the Navy says is "the largest Department of Defense unexploded-ordnance project in the world."

During the past four years, it also has resulted in the largest civilian helicopter operation in the United States.

"Helicopters are the heart of the project," Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Jane Campbell said. "Helicopters transport people and provide logistics support to and from the island, as well as on the island."

John McFarland, unexploded-ordnance specialist, examined a 500-pound bomb that was found on the edge of Kahoolawe's gunnery range Nov. 7. The bomb likely will be destroyed where it was found, on the Lanai side of the former Target Island.

Pacific Helicopters maintains a fleet of three Sikorsky S-61 24-passenger helicopters used to shuttle workers, two Bell 212s, two Bell Rangers and four Hughes 500s. The annual passenger operations of more than 5,000 scheduled flights have resulted in more than 150,000 passenger trips, Campbell said.

Since July 1998, $381 million has been awarded to Parsons/ UXB and other contractors to clear bombs and other munitions from the 28,788-acre island, Campbell said.

Once called the "Target Island," Kahoolawe was a weapons range from 1941 to 1990. All U.S. military branches as well as forces from foreign nations unleashed grenades, naval artillery shells, rockets, guided missiles, flares and bombs on the island.

Protests involving native Hawaiians in the mid-1970s and the 1980s forced the Navy to give up Kahoolawe.

Rear Adm. Robert Conway, Navy Region Hawaii commander, said the cleanup has met its goals of safely removing unexploded ordnance and "to provide safe, meaningful access to the island."

Pamela Medeiros used a metal detector to search for ordnance fragments in the tall elephant grass on the island.

On Nov. 11, 2003, the Navy will transfer control of the island to the state. Until then, the work continues to clear the island, survey it for archaeological sites, rid it of feral goats, and undertake an extensive soil erosion and reforestation program. However, because of the rugged terrain, it has been estimated that 35 percent of the island will remain uncleared of ordnance.

The Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, a state entity, manages the reserve, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. It estimates that it will have $20 million to $25 million left for operation and development.

The Navy says surveys conducted between 1976 and 1980 recorded 544 archaeological sites, containing 2,377 features such as campsites, shrines, quarries and petroglyphs dating back to A.D. 100.

George DeMetropolis, range control officer for Parsons/UXB, said the entire island has been surveyed, mapped and broken into 100-by-100-meter sections called grid mark units.

The cleanup calls for removal or clearance of ordnance from the surface of the island and subsurface clearance down to 4 feet in specific areas, DeMetropolis said.

Assessment teams walk through each unit, he said, looking for endangered species or plants, historical objects, hazardous items or ordnance.

"If they find any possible historical items, then another team goes in to detail the findings. ... Everything is very controlled," he said.

Once the assessment of a unit is completed, DeMetropolis said, an 18-member area-preparation team prunes trees or remove vegetation, depending on what type of clearance will be done in the area.

As the surface sweep is conducted, using metal detectors when necessary, "everything is done to keep the risk level down, " DeMetropolis said.

When teams find a foreign object, it is marked off with red engineering tape and an ordnance specialist is summoned to assess the situation.

"We don't mess with it," DeMetropolis said.

Parsons and the Navy say there has never been an accident involving unexploded ordnance since July 1998, when the cleanup began.

The excavation phase is done by picks and shovels, DeMetropolis said, working each area inches at a time.

After unexploded ordnance is found, identified and recorded, DeMetropolis said officials determine whether to explode it in place or move it to another area for disposal.

Unexploded fragments, or "frags," are packed into sandbags and transported to an inspection point, where they are again inspected, DeMetropolis said. Then they are sent to a thermal-processing unit, basically a furnace, where any remaining explosives are "cooked off." The residue scrap metal is shipped off the island.

As of last month, 15,953 acres have been cleared, 1,867 acres of which were further cleared to a depth of 4 feet. The Navy estimates that as of Sept. 27, nearly 5 million pounds of scrap metal were collected.

Workers like Mailou, 23, hope cleanup will continue once the island reverts to state control.

"There's still a lot more work that needs to be done, and it's hard to find a good-paying job on Maui," Mailou said, who was pumping gas and working at a Maui hardware store before he joined Parsons three years ago.

Medeiros said it wasn't only the pay that enticed her.

"My doctor says it's keeping me alive," she said. "I have diabetes, high blood pressure ... the works. Working out here is good for me."

Kahoolawe fact file

Size: 28,788 acres

Location: Six miles southwest of Maui

Terrain: Rugged. Remote. No water.

Usage: Cattle ranching. Military range since 1941.

End of bombing: 1990

End of cleanup: Nov. 11, 2003, when control returns to state.

Cleanup cost: Nearly $400 million authorized.

Acres cleared: 15,953

Scrap metal collected: 4.9 million pounds

Source: U.S. Navy

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