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The Washington Post

Army, Hawaiian Group Reach Deal on Training; Live-Fire Exercises to Resume in Sensitive Area

By Sally Apgar

October 7, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

HONOLULU -- The U.S. Army and Hawaiian activists have reached a compromise allowing the resumption of limited live-fire training after a three-year hiatus in a valley considered by local residents to be culturally sacred and environmentally fragile.

With America's declared war on terrorism heightening the need to make troops combat-ready, "our need to resume live-fire training in Makua Valley is urgent and immediate," said Maj. Gen. James Dubik, commander of the 25th Infantry Division (Light), announcing the compromise Thursday.

David Henkin, a lawyer representing environmental and native Hawaiian activists who oppose the training, said, "We have decided in this time of national crisis not to stand in the way of the Army."

At Makua Valley, the military faces environmental, health and emotionally charged cultural issues similar to those it faced on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques -- where decades of protests resulted in President Bush telling the Navy in June to halt bombing exercises in 2003.

Home to 45 endangered plant and animal species, the 4,190-acre Makua Valley is also the site of dozens of religious and cultural artifacts dating back as far as 900 years, including heiau (temples), ancestral burial grounds and ko'a (fishermen's shrines).

But since 1929 the area has been used for U.S. military training, and since World War II parts of the valley have been intensively bombed, shelled, assaulted by ground troops and polluted with hazardous waste.

Civilians have been denied access to the valley for the last 60 years.

The Army voluntarily suspended training in Makua in September 1998 after an errant mortar started a fire that consumed 800 acres. The next month, a group called Malama Makua -- "Cherish Makua," in Hawaiian -- filed a lawsuit seeking to ban all military exercises as violations of federal environmental protection laws.

Negotiations in the suit were moving fitfully until Sept. 11. "The attacks presented us with a whole new set of circumstances," Dubik said. "The issues that once divided us no longer seem as important as the cause that now unites us."

As a result of the compromise announced Thursday, the Army will be allowed to conduct live-fire exercises in a 457-acre section of Makua 16 times in the coming year, nine times the following year and 12 in the third year, with each exercise lasting up to two days. Before 1998, exercises had been held as much as 300 days a year.

In exchange, the Army has made several concessions -- the most significant being an agreement to conduct a comprehensive environmental impact study within three years. The study will assess the impact of chemicals and toxins resulting from the military exercises and various hazardous waste disposals on the soil and water of Makua Valley, and whether they may be responsible for what Malama Makua says is a high incidence of cancer among nearby residents.

In addition, the Army agreed to allow civilians to observe the military exercises and to give the community $50,000 to hire independent experts to investigate specific health or environmental issues.

Civilians will also be given "cultural access" to the valley a minimum of two days a month, and will be allowed to camp for nighttime cultural observances at least twice a year. To allow for such access, the Army has agreed to clear unexploded ordinance from a 3,000-foot swath from the ocean to the mountains.

Henkin called the compromise "a great victory," saying the Army had agreed to conduct only the minimum number of live-fire exercises needed to "meet national security needs."

In seeking to resume training there, the Army has argued that combat readiness has been compromised because training with simulators does not give soldiers the first-hand experience with weaponry and maneuvering or the confidence that comes from live training.

Dubik said that seven of the nine rifle company commanders overseeing the first troops that would be be deployed from Hawaii have never participated in live-fire training.

"Real bullets provide realism," he said. Such exercises, he said, give "27-year-old captains leading their units not only tactical proficiency but confidence. Only live-fire training gives that technical dimension and the human dimension needed" to go into combat.

"This agreement represents a balance between our moral obligation to America's soldiers to be combat-ready by conducting tough, realistic training," Dubik said, "and our obligation to conduct that training in a way that protects the environment and cultural heritage of the state."


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