20 years after bombing, Kahoolawe still partly a danger zone

Bart Maybee
Bart Maybee

By Teri Okita – bio | email

KAHOOLAWE (HawaiiNewsNow) – 20 years ago, bombs went silent on the tiny island of Kahoolawe. Since then, the Navy launched the largest ordnance cleanup in U.S. history. Many Hawai residents think the munitions removal is over, but more than a quarter of the island is still a danger zone.

"This would be enough to take the cab off a truck," says unexploded ordnance specialist, Bart Maybee, as he holds up a high explosive called, H-6. It fits in the palm of his hand and looks like just a rock. "A lot of the pieces and parts and components and the actual whole rounds out here, a lot of these things don't even look like what most people would consider a bomb or a bullet," explains Maybee.

That's why 26 percent of Kahoolawe is still off-limits. Maybee guides news crews through an uncleared area littered with live munitions. He points out another piece of ammo. "It's still very viable after all the years sitting out on the range. Still goes boom," he says.

The military cleared 40 thousand Navy five inch projectiles – the most common type of munition found on Kahoolawe. It's shaped like a large bullet and runs about arm's length. The Navy collected a total of 10 million pounds of ordnance during its decade-long, 400 million dollar cleanup. It stopped in 2004 when the Congressionally-mandated time frame and the money for the cleanup ran out.

Michael Nahoopii, from the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, says, "The work is not done, and the work out here won't be done in a generation. We're looking at an endeavor that we won't finish, but our grandchildren will try to finish for us."

100 percent of the surface ordnance was supposed to be cleared, but again, 26 percent of it hasn't been. Many more munitions are lodged deep in the earth. A quarter of the island was supposed to be cleared of ordnance to a depth of five feet, but only nine percent of Kahoolawe has been cleared to a depth of four feet. Caretakers aren't sure the island will ever be munition-free.

Maybee says, "There will be no cleanup from this day forward unless we get more federal money. That's the skinny of it."

At the height of the cleanup, over 400 people turned out everyday – at times, working on their hands and knees - to clear debris. Caretakers hope, someday, they'll finally be able to finish the job.

Copyright 2010 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.