By Gary T. Kubota
KAHOOLAWE -- Smoke and heaving earth shot like a geyser more than 300 feet in the air, then a low boom sounded, reverberating across the southeast hills of Kahoolawe.
Even three miles away, at an observation area, the explosion from a 2,000-pound bomb breaks the air like a cannon shot.
The Navy's demonstration and media tour yesterday showed the danger of clearing live ordnance from the former Target Island and a reason why work has been cautious and sometimes slow.
Within two years, only some 6,304 acres, or a little more than 20 percent of the 28,600-acre island, has been cleared of ordnance, dashing hopes of clearing the whole island of unexploded ordnance in the foreseeable future.
The Navy's work is scheduled to end on Nov. 12, 2003.
The reduction in the anticipated size of the cleaned-up area has forced the state Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission to look at reducing areas of use on the island.
"It's so disappointing," said Keoni Fairbanks, commission executive director. "We're so far behind. This is a very, very difficult project."
The lack of progress has been heartbreaking for some native Hawaiians who worked in the mid-1970s and the 1980s to force the Navy to give up Kahoolawe after it used the island for military maneuvers and bombings for nearly 50 years.
Two native Hawaiians, James "Kimo" Mitchell and George Helm, disappeared during an ocean crossing while protesting the military's use of the island in 1977.
The island, which has hundreds of archaeological sites, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.
Under a 1994 congressional appropriations act, Kahoolawe was conveyed to the state, and the state Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission was put in charge of restoring the island after the Navy cleared the ordnance.
The state Legislature has set aside the island as a cultural preserve.
Some $239 million of the $400 million authorized by Congress has been released for the project. About 11 percent of the money goes to the commission to restore the island.
So far, only some seven acres have been replanted under the commission's direction. Most of the money has been used to clear ordnance from the island.
Cleanup difficultiesKahoolawe is the largest ordnance-clearing project within the U.S. Department of Defense.
Four days a week, some 325 workers are shuttled more than 15 miles by helicopter between Maui and Kahoolawe.
Without roads, water or land transportation from the start, the cleanup has been difficult.
The island, 11 miles long and 7 miles wide, has more than 1,000 acres of cliffs and gullies.
A variety of live ordnance was dropped on Kahoolawe from 1941 to 1990, including grenades, shells fired from ship to shore, rockets, guided missiles, flares, and aerial bombs.
In one sweep, a 500-pound bomb was found four feet under the ground.
Kamaile Kimokeo said she is cautious whenever she hears her metal detector beep as she sweeps the land in front of her.
"I'm scared," she said.
Kimokeo, 34, a native Hawaiian, said she also feels a sense of purpose and pride about helping to restore Kahoolawe for future generations.
"The first time I came here, I kind of had chicken skin and cried," she said.
Besides clearing ordnance, Naval contractor Parsons UXB Joint Venture has been developing a rock quarry to build the 8-mile road from the shoreline base camp of Hanakanaea to the 1,477-foot summit near Lua Makika Crater.
The Navy also has contracted archaeologists to assess the impact of a road.
Several years ago, Navy officials thought they could clear the entire surface of the island and 30 percent of its subsurface as far down as four feet.
But that projection is no longer regarded as realistic.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Paul Borkowski said the risk on Kahoolawe "will never be zero." Borkowski said he is more optimistic than a year ago about the progress and now feels the Navy may be able to clear ordnance off of more than 62 percent of the island if funding continues as projected.
Encouraging signsDespite setbacks, many who have been involved in the restoration of Kahoolawe for years said they have been encouraged by the island's resilience and signs of its returning health.
Shrubs and grasses are growing better in some parts of the island, after the elimination of goats and the planting of rows of tamarisk trees as windbreaks several years ago.
Navy archaeologist Theresa Donham said she's noticed the soil is collecting against mounds of grass rather than being blown away by the wind.
At Lua Makika Crater, where rainfall is the heaviest at about 20 inches a year, some of the native plants in the seven-acre plot planted by commission volunteers have been responding well, with 40 to 50 percent of them surviving.
Archaeologists have been excited about their work and finding out what Hawaiians were doing on Kahoolawe as far back as 1,000 AD.
Parsons UXB program manager William Ahrens said that while the work has gone slowly in the beginning, it has picked up, and he feels confident he can finish clearing ordnance off more than 16,800 acres if funding continues at about $60 million a year.
Ahrens said his company faced difficulty in the early years because of clearing land in areas thick with unexploded ordnance.
Kahoolawe, which means "to be brought together," has played a unifying role in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.
1941: Kahoolawe is seized by military to use in maneuvers and as a bombing target for airplanes and ships.
1976: Nine protesters with Project Kahoolawe Ohana occupy the island on Jan. 4. Seven are arrested within hours, but two elude capture and remain on the island three days.
1977: James "Kimo" Mitchell and George Helm disappear in an ocean crossing during attempts by Hawaiians to reclaim the island.
1979: The state and Navy plant tamarisk trees to fight erosion.
1990: The Navy stops bombing the island. The Navy and Protect Kahoolawe Ohana arrive at a memorandum of understanding, allowing native Hawaiians to visit Kahoolawe periodically.
1994: Under a presidential order, the island is turned over to the state, with the understanding that the Navy is to be in charge of the cleanup. Congress projects spending of $400 million over 10 years for the project.
1998: Cleanup of the island by contractor UXB International begins.
2001: About $124 million has been spent to clear 20 percent of the island. The Navy estimates it may be able to clear 60 percent of Kahoolawe by 2003, when cleanup of the isle is scheduled to end.
WAILUKU -- The president of a nonprofit Maui group has criticized the Navy for exploding a 2,000-pound bomb on Kahoolawe during the migration season for endangered humpback whales.
Humpback whales frequent Maui County waters from December through May.
Greg Kaufman of the Pacific Whale Foundation said shortly after the blast at 11:11 a.m. yesterday, he observed several whales within three miles of Kahoolawe dive and remain under water for about 30 minutes, then swim away toward Maui.
"It sounded like thunder, like rolling thunder," said Kaufman, who observed the explosion from the cinder cone at Puu Olai in south Maui.
Except for about two miles of ocean surrounding Kahoolawe, most waters in Maui County have been designated as a part of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Paul Borkowski said a helicopter made sure there were no whales in the vicinity of the bomb at Kanapou in southeast Kahoolawe before the explosion.
Navy officials say the bomb was located about 200 feet above sea level and an explosion would not affect marine mammals in the water.
Borkowski said the Navy checked with the National Marine Fisheries and obtained the agency's approval before proceeding with the explosion.
Navy officials said they set the explosion for a period when birds, including the endangered dark-rumped petrel, would not be nesting near the bomb.
Naomi McIntosh, acting sanctuary manager, said she learned about the Navy's proposed action through the news media Monday afternoon.
"So there wasn't a whole lot of time for us to really develop a position on it," McIntosh said.
She said the sanctuary was assured by the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries that the explosion would not have an adverse impact on humpback whales.