Proposed Marine Corps Training on Molokai
The U.S. Marine Corps is looking to expand their presence in Hawaii, and some of their proposed operations may take place on Molokai. New aircraft would be based at Kaneohe on Oahu, but the Marine Corp’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) calls for increased activity at the Kalaupapa airport, and use of the Ho`olehua Airport for training.
“With new squadrons [coming], it’s important to take a look at all potentially available facilities,” said Maj. Alan Crouch.
The proposed activity was met with unanimous objection from Molokai residents who attended a Marine Corps consultation meeting last week. A public scoping meeting for the project was held on Molokai back in 2010, with a public comment period open last fall. Last week’s meeting was intended to gather feedback on historic properties that might be affected by the proposed activity, as part of National Historic Preservation Act consultation required for the EIS.
However, many community members felt the scope of the meeting was too narrow, and offered testimony instead on a broad range of concerns. Land adjacent to Ho`olehua Airport, previously used as a Marine Corps base, would be used for refueling training, according to Crouch. Many residents testified that the noise the helicopters would cause over their homes would be disruptive.
“I’ve lived in Ho`olehua my whole life… helicopters used to fly at night time and shake the whole house,” said Wade Lee. “They would fly so low we could read the numbers [on the aircraft] at night time – I don’t want my grandkids growing up with that.”
Capt. Derek George said the proposal includes bringing a total of 54 new aircraft – MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft and H-1 Cobra and Huey helicopters – into the state, but added that some of those will be replacing existing, outdated aircraft. He said Hawaii would see an overall increase 28 new Marine Corps aircraft.
Marine Corps pilot James Sibley said the Molokai airport would be used for logistics and refueling drills.
Vietnam veteran and commander of Veterans Caring for Veterans Larry Helm testified increased helicopter activity would be detrimental for Molokai vets with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He said he’s gotten calls at night from vets whose PTSD symptoms were set off from helicopters flying overhead.
“Ho`olehua has a lot of combat veterans,” he said, asking Marine Corps representatives not to use Molokai for helicopter training.
George said they do not plan to fly over residences. Sibley said the military has to abide by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, which mandate pilots to fly at least 1,000 to 1,500 feet above populated areas. But he said it’s sometimes hard to see isolated homes.
Marine Corps operations at the Ho`olehua Airport are nothing new for residents. Many remember a training support facility that was located there until the 1990s, with seven Marines based there, according to Crouch.
“Last time you left, there was a sense of relief,” resident Steve Chaikin told Marine Corps representatives at the meeting. “I haven’t heard any compelling reasons why you need [training] on Molokai,” he said.
Lee testified that during the Marine Corps’ former operations here, they dumped rubbish on his family’s homestead, and never cleaned it up. “You haven’t fixed the problem and now you want to do it again,” he said.
“For the betterment of my land, family and community, we don’t want you guys here,” said resident Hanohano Naehu. “We feel blessed because of minimal military presence – because of that, we have resources left… You are going to be in direct conflict with the way we live.”
The proposed increase in operations at Kalaupapa raised even more concerns, a site that is already being used for night training.
Timmy Leong, a member of Ka Ohana O Kalaupapa, a group of former Hansen’s disease patients and their family and friends, read testimony written by patient resident and Ohana president Boogie Kahilihiwa.
“Many people are buried in the graveyards near the shoreline very close to where the helicopters fly in,” said Kahilihiwa. “More and more, family members are visiting the graves of their ancestors in Kalaupapa. They seek a contemplative atmosphere where they can sit quietly at the graves…”
He said the current noise of military aircraft has been described as “barely bearable” and “gigantic,” adding “the sight of military helicopters flying in formation of two or more conjures up images of war, which is not appropriate at a sacred place like Kalaupapa.”
George said that based on consultations with the Kalaupapa community, the Marine Corps has already scaled back planned operations from what was originally proposed. Current operations total about 24 hours per year; the proposed increase would double that activity to about 47 hours per year, according to Crouch.
The National Park Service (NPS) also opposes increased helicopter activity in Kalaupapa, according to NPS archeologist Erica Stein. Superintendent Steve Prokop confirmed this at last month’s Kalaupapa community meeting.
Many testifiers expressed frustration with the process, and some residents said that Native Hawaiian people should be included in the scope of cultural and historic property. June Cleghorn, Marine Corps Hawaii cultural resources manager, admitted that sounded reasonable, but the EIS process had to adhere to written definitions by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
George said all of the meeting’s testimony was being recorded, but only as it pertained to historic properties. He added that most of the other comments, especially concerns about noise, had already been recorded during the earlier public scoping process.
Despite residents’ frustrations, Lori Buchanan, who has been participating in state-wide discussions via phone consultation, said there is “widespread support” again using Molokai as a training site.
Cleghorn said in April, the programmatic agreement will be sent to the consulting parties for signature, and the EIS will be finalized this summer. At that time, the EIS will go to the federal Secretary of the Navy for final approval.
For those wishing to participate further in the process, Cleghorn said residents can participate in the phone consultations by contacting her at (808) 257-7126. Community members can also contact their legislators, the State Historic Preservation Office, or the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.