Unexploded munitions cleared on some of Waimea homestead lands, paving way for new homes
During World War II, about 50,000 American troops conducted live-fire training on Hawai‘i Island in preparation for being sent to some of the most hard-fought battles in the Pacific Theatre, including Saipan, Iwo Jima and Midway Atoll.
Since 2002, the corps has conducted 26 cleanups, removing approximately 2,700 munitions items and 120 tons of munitions debris from 30,000 of the 100,220 acres in South Kohala that comprise the Waikōloa Maneuver Area.
But nearly 80 years since troops left the maneuver area, the cleanup still is not complete of the left behind, unexploded munitions — mortars, projectiles, hand grenades, rockets, land mines and Japanese ordinances.
As a result, Hawaiian families have been waiting years for the land to be safe enough to start building or buying on Hawaiian Homestead Lands.
But now there is hope this will soon change. On May 23, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held its first Restoration Advisory Board meeting of the year at Parker Ranch School in Waimea to discuss cleanup updates for the various projects in the area. Officials provided welcome news that no munitions were found in one of the projects, Pu‘ukapu.
The Puʻukapu area, encompassing 11,000 acres on Hawaiian Homestead Lands, is located east of the Waimea-Kohala Airport. While there are homes in the area, building ceased in 2014 and insurable loans to buy in the area were no longer available until the Army Corps of Engineers could inspect the land.
Because it’s a bomb zone, a “no further action” letter from the Hawai‘i Department of Health is a required document for home buyers to provide to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which insures the home loan.
During the meeting, officials announced the remedial investigation conducted found no evidence of military use of the land. The Army Corps now is in the process of filing a proposed plan that indicates no action is needed in relation to cleanup. That document, which will be issued by the the Hawai‘i Department of Health, is expected to be available for public review in the summer.
Shirley De Rego, business development manager at VIP Mortgage, attended the meeting. She works directly with homesteaders who are buying or selling within Pu‘ukapu. She thought the meeting provided good news for the future of families in Waimea.
There are 468 lessees in Pu‘ukapu. De Rego said at least 10 to 20 people she has worked with haven’t been able to build because of financing.
Once a proposed plan is written, the corps will schedule a public meeting to seek community input about the plan. Next, the corps will write a responsiveness summary and record of decision.
David Griffin, Waikōloa Maneuver Program Manager, estimated this process could be finalized by the end of this year. It would enable the Hawai‘i Department of Health to issue the final document, “no further action,” which will allow for building to begin again.
“That will be a nice Christmas present for the folks in Pu‘ukapu,” Griffin said.
Board member Niniau Kawaihae, who also works for the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, said the process is painfully slow. She asked if the process could be completed by Father’s Day.
Kawaihae said she felt the time was “too generous,” adding she is hoping they can have the decision filed by September.
Lt. Col. Ryan Pevey said he knows many Hawaiian families have homes within the Waikōloa Maneuver Area and are waiting for cleanup. He said he has challenged the Army Corps of Engineers team to work as diligently and efficiently as they can to execute approval plans within the process.
“I know the process can be long and I hear you and I feel for you,” said Pevey, adding that the corps mission is safety of the environment and people.
The community also expressed interest in a 3,500-acre project by Kawaihae Road and Waimea Town that encompasses a 220-acre Department of Hawaiian Homelands development known as Lalamilo. Construction of infrastructure, such as roads and utilities, had been completed in the development when the project came to a halt in 2016 to allow the corps to conduct a more thorough survey and do response work for munitions.
Griffin said the corps is working on their draft remedial action report. It will go over to the state. Unlike Pu‘ukapu, the corps is seeking a “conditional no further action” letter while they continue work to clear the greater area.
According to officials with Department of Hawaiian Homeleands, they are currently looking at restarting construction in Lalamilo with some modifications. Seventy-four homes are slated to be built in the first phase of development.
“As Hawaiians and beneficiaries of the land, that is one way to keep our Hawaiian families here, by getting this going so they can occupy their property,” one woman commented at the meeting.
After the meeting, De Rego said she was happy with all the news: “Finally, finally there’s a bright light at the end of the tunnel.”
Two surface cleanups were conducted in 1946 and 1954. But it wasn’t until 1993 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began investigating the area as a part of the Formerly Used Defense Sites program, which is overseen by the Department of Defense. The area is divided into 22 Munitions Response Sites encompassing 100,220 acres in South Kohala.
The 22 project areas are in various phases of a process mandated by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liabilities Act. The process includes gathering historical information about the land, field investigation, risk assessment development, selection of remedial alternatives and performing selected remedial actions such as removal and public education/outreach.
Thirteen areas have obtained a selected remedy, and one project has reached response completion. The Army Corps of Engineers of the Honolulu District and local contractors handle the work.
The Army Corps prioritizes projects based on risk, and coordinates priorities annually with the Hawai‘i Department of Health. Under the multi-step process, projects can take several years to complete.
The Waikōloa Maneuver Area encompasses land with a northern boundary generally in the area of Kawaihae Road, which intersects with the western boundary at Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway. The southern boundary is south of Waikōloa Road to where it intersects with Māmalahoa Hwy. The eastern boundary is generally defined by the eastern Tax Map Key boundary of the Department of Hawaiian Homelands and Parker Ranch Land where they intersect with Old Saddle Road.
The corps said no one is displaced from the land during the cleanup effort. Residents, however, may be asked to temporarily evacuate their homes, usually for 2 to 4 hours to allow work crews to assess the presence of munitions. Property owners are never denied access to their land. There are no evacuation notices currently in the Waikōloa Maneuver Area.