Monday, November 10, 2003

Wearing a protective respirator hood, Donna Simpson sorts out bits and pieces of material brought to the inspection point on Kahoolawe. Each team sorts about 10,000 pounds of material a day.

Clearing the way

The Navy cleanup’s end
will bring the loss of
lucrative civilian jobs

KAHOOLAWE -- Tomorrow, the Navy will close another chapter of its history in the Pacific when it officially turns over access to the target island of Kahoolawe to the state.

map It will join a growing list of areas that the military has been forced to abandon, such as Vieques in Puerto Rico, because of political and other pressures.

The cleanup has meant jobs at a time when jobs were scarce on Maui and Molokai. It has furthered the development of the science of environmental restoration. For the past five years, nearly 500 people were employed at annual payroll of $50 million.

But the turnover also has not silenced critics who feel that the Navy has not done enough to rid the island of unexploded ordnance.

This 11-mile-long island, six miles southwest of Maui, has been a source of historical, cultural and religious significance for native Hawaiians. Since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, it also was significant for the military, adding to the successes of the invasion of Guadalcanal in 1942 and then Saipan two years later.

As a post-World War II target range, Kahoolawe was fired upon by every military service until 1990, when President George Bush, under political pressure from island activists and other quarters, ordered the halt of its use.

Since July 1998 the Navy argues that it has been at work following the edicts of a 1993 federal law ordering "the clearance of unexploded ordnance and environmental restoration to provide meaningful and safe use for appropriate cultural, historical, archeological and educational purposes as determined by the state of Hawaii."

On Thursday, Rear Adm. Barry McCullough, who oversees the final stages of the Kahoolawe cleanup as commander of Navy Region Hawaii, went to the island to thank the nearly 400 civilian workers for their effort.

Items are set aside at the inspection point and will be sent for further processing or "demilitarization."

The Navy maintains that nearly 70 percent of Kahoolawe's 28,788 acres will be cleared when it finally leaves this dusty island next March. Much of what was untouched was remote and treacherous ravines and gullies, McCullough told reporters last week. It has also recorded 2,550 historic properties, including more than 630 new properties since the cleanup began.

McCullough said the Navy believes it has lived up to its commitments under the federal law authorizing $460 million for the restoration and cleanup and the agreement it signed with the state nine years ago.

He used various analogies in addressing the civilian workers -- all of whom will be losing lucrative jobs -- to explain how much work had been done.

McCullough said that 8.9 million pounds, or about 4,500 tons, of scrap metal were collected, pointing out that it takes 3,000 tons of steel to build an Oliver Perry-class frigate and more than 5,000 tons to construct an Arleigh Burke destroyer.

He said that 12,700 tires were removed, which when stacked up would be more than a mile high.

Besides being the largest ordnance operation in the world, McCullough said, it also involved the largest civilian helicopter operation.

Delvin Moku, Kamaile Kimokeo, Michael Dean and Kim Stanfield wait at the Puunene heliport for transport to Kahoolawe. They are among the more than 300 workers flown to the island daily for the cleanup work.

The Navy contracted Pacific Helicopter Tours, whose fleet included three Sikorsky S-61 24-passenger heavy lift helicopters and two Bell 211 13-passenger helicopters, to shuttle 400 workers each Monday through Thursday from Puunene to its base camp on the south end of this island. That amounted to at least 280 round trips each day. Each workday amounted to 10 hours. Fridays -- a day when the islands had the least amount of workers -- were used to detonate bombs and other ordnance.

Donna Simpson, 54, was among the first group of more than 20 workers who started working here in 1999. "We used to commute from Molokai every Monday and stay here until Thursday, sleeping in quarters at base camp."

"It's been a good job. ... I matured here," said Simpson, who toils at the island's inspection point where workers determine which scrap metal needs to be further cleaned in a 650-degree furnace. "Here there were no distractions. I focused on my job."

Arthur Wong Duck, 58, began as a bomb disposal technician in 1995 when he was in the Navy. "I started at $22.50 an hour as a civilian, and now I make $56 an hour as a supervisor," added Duck, a 1963 Kailua High School graduate.

He credits his latest raise by contractor Parsons/UXB to the conditions in Afghanistan, which has lured many bomb ordnance specialists with promises of wages amounting to $240,000 a year -- nearly doubling what they now make.

Leslie Goo, a worker at the thermal processing unit, said he hopes to use the wages he earned at his $23.75-an-hour job over the past three years to attend a six-week ordnance disposal school at Texas A&M University.

"There are lots of cleanup projects on the Big Island and the mainland," the Wailuku native said.

Jack Scott, president of Parsons Inc., which was instrumental in the construction of the chemical weapons destruction plant on Johnston Atoll, credits work on Kahoolawe as further developing technology dealing with the difficult task of metal detection in areas where the soil is rich in iron deposits, as it is here due to the islands' volcanic history.

A member of Range Clearance Team 3 picks up ferrous metal debris with a magnet. About 15 crew members are working this 330-square-foot area. In the process, they'll find unfired cartridges, rocket warheads and practice bombs. Occasionally, large unexploded bombs are found, and they are detonated in place.

As for the loss of this island as a military installation, McCullough said that today's technology allows the Navy to use inert bombs because no one has to see where the bomb explodes to determine the accuracy or proficiency of its operator.

"We didn't have that capability prior to the late 1990s," said the one-star admiral. "With the advent of precision weapons, both laser-guided bombs and GPS weapons, we can use training rounds that are nonexplosive."

However, the Navy still has a continuing commitment to clear unexploded ordnance, McCullough said. If unexploded ordnance is found after the Navy leaves, McCullough said, the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission can seek the military's help to clear the area.

As to the criticism from some native Hawaiians that not enough has been done, McCullough told reporters last week, "I can understand why the people of Hawaii would think we're abandoning it, but the truth of the matter is that we're not."

He added: "Any time you have a major undertaking, whether it's working on Kahoolawe or it's work on a ship or it's work at a job, and you're committed to that job, it's always hard to depart that job and go on to other endeavors. The way I look at is, these people have put a large part of their personal lives into this project, and it'll be hard for them to leave."


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