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Armed Forces Journal

The Return Of Kaho'olawe; In A Navy First, An Island Is Cleared Of Unexploded Ordnance

By Eugenia M. Kolasinski Morgan

August 1, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Army Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

Military Cleanup

The Knowledge Gained Over The Course Of The Project Offers A Wealth Of Lessons For Future UXO Clearance Projects, Including Clearance At Vieques, Puerto Rico.

The U.S. Navy completed its first large-scale foray into unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance early this year. Prior to the Kaho'olawe UXO Clearance Project (KUXOCP), Naval Facilities Engineering Command performed base-closure tasks for the Navy except UXO clearance, which fell to the U.S. Army.

When Kaho'olawe's use as a major gunnery range ended after almost 50 years, the Navy decided to try UXO clearance and made history in the process.

The KUXOCP was an unprecedented effort in many respects. It was the longest continuous UXO project in Defense Department history. At $280 million when it was awarded in 1997 (it was increased by $50 million in January 2003), it is the largest ordnance-clearance contract awarded by the Defense Department. The project also was the largest civil helicopter operation in the United States and, with 230 chain saws at work, the largest known "military chain-saw operation."

As such a groundbreaking effort, KUXOCP affords a wealth of lessons learned.


Kaho'olawe is the smallest of eight major islands comprising the state of Hawaii. Six miles southwest of Maui, the island is 11 miles long, seven miles wide and totals 28,788 acres (about 45 square miles). The island was settled around 1000 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.

Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Army took control of Kaho'olawe for training. Thousands of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen trained on the island during World War II. In 1953, President Eisenhower's Executive Order 10436 placed Kaho'olawe under the jurisdiction of the secretary of the Navy and reserved it for "Naval purposes." Training continued on the island during the Korean and Vietnam wars and throughout the Cold War.


In 1976, Protect Kaho'olawe Ohana, a Hawaiian activist group, filed a federal lawsuit to stop the Navy from using the island for military training. The suit was settled by a consent decree in 1980 that allowed the Navy to continue military training, but required it to begin environmental programs.

Live-fire training ended in 1990 with a presidential directive. In 1993, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, sponsored Title X of the fiscal 1994 Defense Department Appropriations Act. This legislation recognized Kaho'olawe's significance to the Hawaiian people and provided for UXO clearance and environmental restoration for "meaningful, safe use" for "appropriate cultural, historical, archaeological and educational purposes" as determined by the state. In 1994, the Navy transferred title of Kaho'olawe to Hawaii. By Title X mandate, however, the Navy was to retain access control of the island until clearance and environmental restoration activities were complete, or for 10 years following the enactment of Title X (i.e., Nov. 11, 2003), whichever came first.

State law dictates Kaho'olawe and its waters can be used only for native Hawaiian cultural, spiritual and subsistence purposes, fishing, environmental restoration, historic preservation and education – no commercial uses are allowed. In accordance with these uses, the state prepared a use plan for the island from which the Navy developed its cleanup strategy.

In 1997, the Navy awarded the UXO clearance contract to a joint venture of Parsons Corp. and UXB International Inc., and work began on the island in November 1998.


The KUXOCP faced numerous challenges. Decades of drought, overgrazing, wind and occasional heavy rainstorms eroded much of the island's topsoil to a red, stone-like surface known as "hardpan." The windswept and barren island presented a hot, dry, harsh environment with no fresh water and deep, steep-sided gullies. The high ferrous content of rocks and soil rendered many common detection technologies useless. Weather and ocean made for dynamic geography and environment.

Military use left a substantial amount of UXO and debris but no location details. In addition to every type of conventional ordnance – from small arms to the largest classes of air- and ship-delivered munitions – target vehicles, tires and other evidence of military use had to be removed.

Cultural and archaeological sites, military aircraft crash sites and natural resources had to be documented for each acre, and workers could not disturb the occasional monk seal that came ashore to rest or give birth.

Except for a small base camp and a cross-island dirt road constructed during the island's training use, Kaho'olawe had no population, piers, airstrips or significant infrastructure.

To transport large equipment and supplies for the project, the Navy constructed a three-point mooring system with two onshore moorings and one offshore. Base-camp facilities were improved and the main road was cleared of UXO, rerouted to avoid sensitive areas, graded and paved.

Though base camp could house a small group of personnel, it could not support the majority of the work force. After soliciting input from private enterprise, the Navy opted to use helicopters to transport workers and small equipment and materiel to and from the island. Six helicopter pads were built across the island and three Sikorsky S-61 medium-lift utility helicopters and several smaller helicopters shuttled approximately 350 workers between the island and a Maui heliport each workday.


Two tiers of UXO clearance were developed to meet use goals. Tier 1 consisted of surface clearance for limited public-access use such as livestock grazing and surface seeding. Tier 2 consisted of clearance to a depth of 4 feet for public-access use such as farming, vehicular traffic, camping and cultural work.

The Navy developed a nine-step process to clear chosen acreage.

First, using a Global Positioning System (GPS) survey, the island was marked and divided into 100-meter-by-100-meter grid squares. Next, archaeologists, botanists and ordnance experts examined each grid square for natural resources, historic properties and ordnance. In step three, data for each square were organized into a database containing GPS coordinates, before-and-after photographs and information on topography, every piece of ordnance found, every cultural and historic artifact and site, and every natural resource and species.

In step four, the first stage of clearance, workers prepared the area by cutting tall grass and brush with hand tools, saws, chain saws and weed trimmers. In step five, teams walked shoulder to shoulder examining the area, picking up small metal scraps and flagging suspected ordnance. A team examined suspected ordnance to determine if it could be moved to a storage area for later disposal or if it was too unstable and had to be destroyed in place. Each UXO piece was photographed and bar-coded for tracking and cataloging.

Commercial metal detectors were used in step six to locate subsurface anomalies. After detecting an anomaly, a hand search was conducted for scrap metal and suspected ordnance. If the hand search yielded no scrap metal, a red flag was placed to indicate possible buried UXO. Areas around red flags were excavated in step seven to uncover UXO. Each piece found was assessed to determine if it could be moved for later disposal or should be destroyed in place.

For scrap metal and ordnance fragments not blown in place, step eight consisted of collecting and moving the items to a storage area for hand sorting and screening followed by super-heating in a thermal-processing unit to destroy hazardous materials. Items leaving the island were rendered into nonhazardous waste suitable for recycling or disposal in a landfill. The final step involved a quality-control inspection followed by an independent quality-assurance inspection by the Navy.

Roughly 95 percent of Tier 1 and 97 percent of Tier 2 grid squares passed this final step on the first attempt.


From the outset, project managers were directed to solve the UXO detection problem however possible, with an emphasis on "better, quicker, cheaper."

In 2000, KUXOCP officials held a technology conference with workshops and on-island product demonstrations. Kaho'olawe was opened additional times for technology demonstrations, and project personnel were sent to investigate potential technologies and attend conferences.

When a technology was found to work on Kaho'olawe, it was purchased immediately. Being the Navy's first UXO clearance project, there was no existing bureaucracy to slow decision-making, and production decisions were made primarily at the project level. The results benefited everyone involved: New technologies were fielded faster than usual, KUXOCP saw and consistently used the best and newest technologies available, and companies made sales and received valuable feedback on their products.

Although incremental improvements were made at the high-tech end of detection, most of the benefits that occurred were at the low-tech end. One of the most useful innovations was a magnet on a stick, used for picking up small pieces of metallic debris in magnet-safe environments. This simple device increased production while decreasing injuries due to repeated bending and grasping.


Worker safety was a primary concern throughout the project. The result was an impressive record in the UXO cleanup business: more than 4.8 million hours of cleanup work with only a minor UXO incident occurring in the final months of the project. KUXOCP Project Director James D. Putnam emphasized that safety can be managed.

"Money spent on safety generally pays back many times over," he said.

Although other types of non-UXO-related incidents occurred, the project mitigated two major problems by learning from incidents during the first year of clearance. Three heat-stress injuries requiring medical evacuations cost approximately $100,000 in treatment and lost time. To prevent future injuries, workers were provided with sports drinks and training about heat stress. The drinks cost $100,000 a year, but no further heat-stress injuries occurred.

A large number of knee and ankle injuries also occurred during the first year of clearance. To address this problem, a boot standard was implemented and range workers were reimbursed $125 each year for new boots. The reimbursement cost the project approximately $20,000 a year in footwear, but the number of ankle and foot injuries decreased significantly.

The two programs were supplemented with instruction on pre-work stretching. With implementation of the three programs, the OSHA mishap rate decreased 70 percent from the first year of clearance to the last.


On Nov. 11, access control of Kaho'olawe transferred from the Navy to the state as mandated by Title X. Clearance continued until the end of 2003 and preparations for UXB's departure from the island continued into 2004 until KUXOCP officially ended in April.

KUXOCP achievements are numerous. In the 10 years provided, the project met Title X goals. Of the island's 28,788 acres, about 22,000 were surface-cleared; of these, about 2,650 were further cleared to a depth of 4 feet.

Because the first three steps in the nine-step process were completed on every grid square, Kaho'olawe is the first Hawaiian island to be entirely digitally mapped. Project archaeologists recorded 658 archaeological or historic sites in addition to those noted in 1981. About 9.3 million pounds of range scrap was collected. Over the course of the project, more than $400 million was added to Hawaii's economy in the form of salaries and major subcontracts.

At the project's completion, the Navy transferred $8.6 million worth of equipment, property and data to the state. The knowledge gained over the course of the project offers a wealth of lessons for future UXO clearance projects, including clearance at Vieques, Puerto Rico.

The Navy cleared Kaho'olawe in accordance with Title X and the state's use plan. Unfortunately, because it is impossible for a UXO clearance operation to guarantee 100 percent surface and subsurface clearance, risk on the island will always remain. With more time and additional money, more of Kaho'olawe can be cleared. In the meantime, Kaho'olawe's healing has begun and it's time for meaningful, safe use.

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