Thursday, July 5, 2001

Makua battle
reaches fed court

A local group wants to stop
Army training in Makua Valley
until its impact is assessed

By Gregg K. Kakesako

The Makua battle lines are drawn.

In a Honolulu federal courtroom next week, the future of the 25th Infantry Division and the possible conversion of one of its brigades to one of the Army's premier combat units will be argued.

It is one of several challenges facing the Pentagon on training areas, ranging from the move by environmentalists to block the Navy's use of Farallon de Medinillia in Saipan to President Bush's latest decision to end the Navy's use of Vieques on Puerto Rico.

The 25th is among four Army units being considered to receive special attention as part of the transformation into a wheeled light armored force.

In Hawaii, the Army believes the public interest "is best served" by letting soldiers of the 25th Infantry Division resume training in Makua Valley in what the Army maintains is "an environmentally conscious manner," U.S justice attorneys will argue in federal court next week.

In responding to the request by Malama Makua and the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund to block the training, Theodore Meeker, assistant U.S. attorney, said, "The public interest is served by the fact there are built-in constraints in the Army's proposed action that protect the environment."

Malama Makua's request for a preliminary injunction will be heard by U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway at 8:30 a.m. Monday. A group of Waianae residents wants to prevent the Army from resuming firing weapons in the valley until a more extensive and more expensive environmental impact statement is completed.

More than a decade ago, Bush's father faced a similar situation and halted the bombing of the target island of Kahoolawe under similar political pressure that Bush faced before making the Vieques decision last month. Now environmental leaders in Texas say they are prepared to oppose any attempt to move naval bombing and training exercises from Puerto Rico to an ecologically sensitive stretch of 220,000 acres of sparsely populated Texas coastline on the Gulf of Mexico.

In the Justice Department's latest brief rejecting Malama Makua's request for the injunction, Meeker acknowledged that although there is no national defense exemption to the National Environmental Policy Act, "the success of the division's future missions, measured in no small part by minimizing American casualties, is directly and inextricably dependent upon the skill of the soldiers carrying it out."

Farther west in the Pacific, Earthjustice wants to stop the Navy from using the uninhabited island of Farallon de Medinillia, 45 miles north of Saipan, as a bombing range. The Earthjustice suit alleges that the Navy's bombing exercises violate the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and that the 200-acre island is an important nesting site for more than a dozen species of migratory birds.

In its Makua lawsuit, Earthjustice filed briefs last month rejecting claims in the Army's supplement environmental assessment that its modified training program will threaten neither the endangered species nor the 100 cultural sites in the 4,000-acre valley.

Meeker, in his June 21 responding brief, said that preventing the Army from training while arguments are heard over the next six to 12 months on the merits of an assessment vs. an impact statement will force the Army to try to find a training site outside Hawaii.

But Malama Makua wants a full environmental impact statement, which it says is required by law when there is "potential for significant impact."

"The potential for catastrophic damage is extremely high," said David Henkin, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represents the nonprofit group. "It's not a question of if. It's a question of when."

Since 1998, when training in Makua Valley was halted, the Army was able to complete only 13 of its required 54 training exercises. Those were done in Louisiana, California and Thailand.

In the future, only a few can be conducted outside Hawaii, Meeker said, rejecting Earthjustice's claims that the 25th Division can move its training to mainland facilities. Earthjustice maintains that additional costs are not legitimate grounds for denying the injunction.

Some of these training areas are not big enough to accommodate the 25th Division, Meeker said. Training away from Hawaii also is expensive, would take longer and involve more deployments, which would mean soldiers would be away from their families more often, affecting morale and readiness.

"The 25th Infantry Division cannot continue to sustain a 75 percent reduction in its required company maneuver training," he added. "This cycle cannot continue, or the division's ability to perform its mission will be severely harmed."

There also is the risk of future mission failures and casualties, Meeker said, if the soldiers in the division's 18 infantry companies do not receive this mandatory training.

This is because the tactics practiced in Makua Valley involve the coordination of various Army units -- infantry, artillery and aviation, he said.

"Soldiers need to use real weapons with live ammunition to master these skills," Meeker said.

Similar training scenarios are used by Kaneohe Marines and Hawaii Army National Guard and Army Reserve troops. The Army's modified training program, which cut the number of soldiers in the valley at one time to 150, was supposed to have resumed this summer.

The new plan prohibits the use of rockets; tube-launched, optically tracked and wire-guided missiles; and other incendiary devices, eliminating the type of ammunition that caused the majority of fires in the valley in the past. The Army estimates that 61 percent of the fires between 1970 and 1988 can be attributed to tracer ammunition, incendiary munitions and TOW missiles -- now prohibited weaponry.

Meeker said the Army will use only 456 acres of the 4,000 acres it controls in Makua in terrain similar to what it will fight in when sent into battle.

Makua is home to at least 40 endangered species, including 36 plants, two birds, one mammal and one snail. Most of these endangered species are located along the Makua Valley rim -- miles away from the training and impact area, Meeker said.

Meeker said the Army incorporated the findings of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in developing its fire management program. He also argued that since the Army has identified cultural and historic sites in Makua Valley and trained its soldiers to avoid them, none have been damaged.

And U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Defense Appropriations Committee, has repeatedly warned that a shutdown of Makua will result in the Pentagon withdrawing soldiers and Marines from here since they will not be ready for war if they cannot train.

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