SA: U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele calls for return of Makua Valley land

By Mindy Pennybacker, Star-Advertiser, 18 March 2022

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele has introduced legislation requiring the cleanup, restoration and return of 782 leased acres of Oahu’s Makua Military Reservation used for live-fire training from 1942 to 2004 to the state of Hawaii.

Named the Leandra Wai Act in honor of the late cultural practitioner and co-founder of Malama Makua, a Native Hawaiian community group that has for decades sought to protect and restore the valley’s unique environmental and cultural resources, the bill authorizes appropriations be made to a trust fund that would be created to achieve its purposes.

“It is time to demilitarize and return Makua Valley to the people of Hawaii,” Kahele said at a news conference Wednesday morning at Thomas Square, following the draping of the statue of Kauikeaouli, King Kameha­meha III, with lei in celebration of the Hawaiian monarch’s birthday.

Noting that unexploded ordnance and other contaminants remain in the valley and have caused “environmental degradation and cut off Native Hawaiians from traditional cultural practices,” the congressman added that the legislation “is a step towards righting decades of wrongs against Native Hawaiians and their sacred sites.”

“We are aware of the legislation introduced by Congressman Kahele, (and) as is our standard practice, we have no comment on the proposed legislation,” U.S. Army Hawaii said in an email statement on the proposed legislation.

The U.S. military’s 65-year lease for 30,000 acres of training lands in Hawaii, including the 782 acres in Makua Valley, expires in 2029. But the Army has proposed to extend its lease at Makua, as well as elsewhere on Oahu and the Big Island.

In addition to requiring the transfer of the leased acres back to the state within 180 days of its enactment, the act requires full remediation of all 4,190 acres in the entire Makua Military Reservation, Kahele said.

Drawing parallels to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s recent order that the Navy close its fuel storage facility at Red Hill after contaminating the water supply, and the Navy’s 1994 transfer of the island of Kahoolawe to the state after using it as a bomb target from 1941 to 1990, he said the act was another step toward reducing community anxiety and showing the military “they cannot continue to harm this land unchecked.”

He added that Native Hawaiians had demonstrated to stop bombing on Kaho­olawe from 1976 to 1990, followed by a drawn-out process of removing live ordnance and restoring the island environment, “which is still not complete, and we will not make the same mistakes” with Makua Valley.

No live-fire training has been conducted in Makua since 2004 as the result of environmental lawsuits filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Malama Makua. The nonprofit legal organization has also fought for continued community access for cultural practices, as ordered by the court in a 2001 settlement that also required the Army to do an environmental impact statement.

“The Army has allowed limited access with our settlement, and we go there twice a week (to have) a blessing and healing of Makua,” said Sparky Rodri­gues, Wai’s husband and co-founder of Malama Makua.

When asked how he was feeling about the legislation named for his wife, he said he was “nervous — this is new for us, but all we can do is try our best.”

“I can envision a day when all the ordnance is cleared up and the toxins removed so we can enjoy food grown in Makua,” Rodrigues said.

The Leandra Wai Act states that Makua, which means ‘‘parents’’ in Hawaiian, is a sacred place containing more than 100 sites eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, including Hawaiian temples, shrines and petroglyphs, many of which have been damaged by bombs and bullets.

The valley is home to more than 40 species of animals and plants protected under the Endangered Species Act that have been threatened by training-related fires, including a fire set in 2003 to clear vegetation that went out of control, burning 2,500 acres.

Historically considered aina momona, or fertile land, with evidence of extensive agricultural terracing, the valley’s air, land, groundwater and the ocean off Makua Beach have been contaminated by toxins released in training exercises and prescribed burns, the legislation states.

The act’s provisions include:

The Department of Defense must provide a cost estimate and cleanup schedule for the remediation and restoration.

The secretary of the Army must enter into a memorandum of understanding with the state on establishing a Makua Valley Conveyance, Remediation, and Environmental Restoration Trust Fund, and consult with Native Hawaiian organizations on the timing, planning, methodology and implementation for the removal of unexploded ordnance and other contaminants.

Transfer of land to the state under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, with exemption from a provision that requires remedial actions to be completed before the transfer.

Appropriation of necessary funding needed to make the Makua suitable for agriculture, residential use and human habitation.

Asked how much money might be involved, Kahele replied that the amount couldn’t be calculated until the extent of the work is known, and part of the act’s requirements included a study to determine that extent.

However, he added, based on the funds appropriated to remediate Kahoolawe, which amounted to “at least $400 million, and that was 30 years ago,” he could estimate that the costs to restore Makua would be considerably higher.

State Sen. Maile Shimabukuro (D, Waianae) and state Reps. Cedric Gates (D, Waianae) and Daniel Holt (D, Kalihi) also spoke at the news conference, expressing support for the bill.

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