Pohakuloa EIS hearing article in May 11, 2024 Honolulu Star Advertiser

Star Advertiser: Hawaii island residents clash with Army over training ground  

By Michael Brestovansky Hawaii Tribune-Herald

May 11, 2024

Hawaii island residents continue to urge the U.S. Army to abandon the Pohakuloa Training Area instead of extending its lease of state land.

The Army’s lease of about 23,000 acres of state land is set to expire in 2029. While that land is only a small fragment of the greater 132,000-acre PTA, its central location means it is considered a vital component of the training area.

As part of a years-long process to renew that lease, the Army in April released a draft environmental impact statement about the renewal, the second such draft after a 2022 document. That document indicated that extending the lease for another 65 years could adversely affect Hawaiian cultural practices in the area.

The draft EIS suggested five options for the lease renewal process that differ largely in how much of the land to retain. The one most favored by the Army would retain about 19,700 acres, which would include all U.S. government-owned facilities and infrastructure on the land.

But the alternative most favored among attendees of a public meeting Tuesday was one that would retain none of the land, allow the lease to lapse and drastically reduce the functionality of PTA as a whole.

The meeting, at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, was one of two held during the week as part of a public comment period about the EIS — the other was held Monday in Waimea — and went much the same as previous discussions: overwhelming public opposition against the Army’s presence on the Big Island.

U.S. Army Garrison Commander Hawaii Col. Steve McGunegle and PTA Garrison Commander Lt. Col. Tim Alvarado hosted the meeting but offered only brief opening statements before opening the floor to public testimony.

“Hawaii is important to the military, and we are aware that being here comes with the responsibility of being good neighbors and stewards of the land,” said McGunegle in his introduction, eliciting scornful laughter from the audience.

Attendee Prana Mandoh said, “The lease on state land should expire because the lessee, the U.S. Army, has been a poor tenant. If we even look at it in the most simple colonial rules, you don’t renew a lease with a lessee who trashes your house.”

Mandoh and many others argued that the military should clean up unexploded ordnance, chemical spills and other detritus if it takes its environmental responsibilities seriously, while others feared that the environmental impacts of the base are already irreversible.

Longtime PTA opponent Jim Albertini called the Army’s claims of being a good steward of the land “the big lie” and cited nearly 900 recorded fires throughout PTA since 1975 that were attributed to military actions. He added that the number is likely higher still, given that several records from before 2004 have been lost.

Albertini noted that the millions of live rounds fired and explosives detonated at PTA simply do not suit lands within a conservation district. And he alleged that depleted uranium rounds — ammunition made from a high-density nuclear byproduct favored for armor- piercing capabilities — have leached toxic dust into the air, which could cause cancers or genetic damage to people downwind.

Several attendees pointed to the 2021 Red Hill incident on Oahu — when a fuel leak at the U.S. Navy-operated underground fuel storage facility contaminated the aquifer and temporarily displaced thousands of residents — as further evidence that the U.S. armed forces cannot be trusted to properly manage Hawaii lands.

“What if the aquifers of this island have already been contaminated by PTA?” asked Nana Honua- Manuel. “Why are you still trucking in water? This is my never-ending nightmare: that the occupier, the U.S. military, will return the kingdom aina to the lahui when it is all poisoned and uninhabitable.”

Much of the testimony against the Army veered away from specific impacts on the Big Island to the greater impact of the U.S. military-industrial complex throughout history. Several attendees drew on their own personal histories with past U.S. wars — in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan — to decry the use of Big Island lands to fuel further conflicts around the globe.

“You focus too much on the mission, man,” Army veteran Leiomana Turalde said to Alvarado. “I dropped the bombs just like you did. … I dropped bombs on this base, too. Did you? I did. I’m not proud of that, and I tell all my people I’m sorry.”

Only two people testified in support of the Army and PTA: Miles Yoshioka, executive officer of the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, and Noelani Kalipi, a volunteer civilian aide to the secretary of the Army.

Yoshioka said PTA offers valuable emergency response services along Saddle Road, while Kalipi said she hopes the Army and Big Island community can work together to plan for an eventual scaling back of PTA in the future.

While Hilo’s meeting was the last scheduled public meeting during the comment period, online comments can still be submitted at bit.ly/3y59IL2  until June 7.