Community wants to know what blew up at Makua Valley

Community wants to know what blew up at Makua Valley
Published: Apr. 7, 2015 at 10:17 PM HST|Updated: Apr. 7, 2015 at 10:30 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Army has begun an investigation into the explosion at Makua Military Reservation Monday that injured two landscape workers, one critically.

The blast left a landscaping employee critically injured and another with minor injuries after the explosion at Makua Valley around 1:45 p.m. Monday while the men were cutting grass with hand-held grass trimmers about 2/3 of a mile in the valley.

"It's very disturbing," said State Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, who represents Waianae and chairs the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee.

"We don't know exactly where this happened yet, and so that needs to be immediately disclosed to the public so that we know where these unexploded ordnance may be and where the risk is," Shimabukuro said.

Dennis Drake, the public affairs director for the U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii, said the garrison is working with the Army Combat Readiness Safety Center to conduct the investigation.

Drake said the two landscapers, who work for contractor NuGate Group LLC, were "conducting routine vegetation maintenance as part of the Army's environmental requirements to train in the valley."

Drake said the Army does not know what type of explosive blew up Monday, causing the injuries.

Nanakuli resident De Mont Conner, who's visited Makua Valley numerous times, wants answers from the Army.

"If the average everyday person can be weedwacking off the side of the road and get blown up, what about us?" Conner said.

Conner said the investigation must answer key questions: "What kind of ordnance it was, where did it come from? Who built it? Why did it get here? How long has it been here? Because they have records."

The Army has not conducted live-fire exercises at Makua since 2004, but holds maneuvers using blanks, drones and convoy training. The valley is full of numerous unexploded ordnances – from bullets to bombs -- because the military spent decades live-fire training there.

"It's obviously very regrettable that there's an accident and it's just a reminder that we've all got more work to do to make Makua safe for the Army and for cultural access, " said lawyer David Henkin of of the environmental law organization Earthjustice. Henkin has battled the Army in court to protect 100 significant Hawaiian cultural sites in Makua Valley from live-fire military training.

Henkin said his clients, members of the group Malama Makua, have been denied access to the valley for the last year, after the Army stopped cutting grass leading to cultural sites.

"We are concerned that the Army is using the grass cutting issue as a pretext to deprive the community of court-ordered cultural access," Henkins said.

Henkin said the Army stopped cutting grass around cultural sites a year ago, claiming it was concerned about damaging cultural sites, even though there have been no reports of such problems in 13 years. The Army used to cut the grass around cultural sites twice a month, he said, with no problems.

Henkin said previously, when the Army allowed Hawaiian groups access to the valley, it would ask where they planned to go and would sweep the areas ahead of time.

"For the cultural access, they do send out explosive ordnance teams with metal detectors before every access to make sure that there are no hazards. So that access is and has always been very safe," Henkin said. He said an explosive ordnance expert would accompany the community groups into the valley as an additional safety measure.

Drake, the Army spokesman, said as part of the landscaping contract, the company's employees "are required to complete a range orientation safety briefing on-site and (unexploded ordnance) orientation training."

Henkin said the significant cultural features in Makua Valley include historic Hawaiian agricultural and housing sites, temples, shrines and petroglyphs on rocks.

During World War II, the military training in Makua Valley included aerial bombing and Navy ships shelling the valley from the ocean. In more recent years, the Army used live mortar rounds, anti-tank artillery and live machine-gun fire in the valley in training exercises.

"Makua is second only to Kahoolawe in terms of the concentration of unexploded ordnance," said Shimabukuro, the senator, referring to Kahoolawe, the island that the Navy bombed for decades until ceasing target practice there in 1990.

The federal government should fund ordnance cleanup in Makua, endowing money for the long-term, Shimabukuro said.

"It should be a perpetual source of funding because we really have to prevent other tragedies from happening," Shimabukuro said.

Henkin said the Army cleared ordnance going 1,000 yards back from the fence line at Makua years ago, to assure that cars on Farrington Highway and people at the beach across the highway would not be injured by an old bomb or mortar shell.

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