Navy: No live fire, land exercises off Maui County

But some residents skeptical, concerned about damage to coral and sea life

This map shows the nearshore areas off Molokai where the Navy plans special operations training. Some Molokai residents oppose the plans, which are part of a draft environmental impact statement. U.S. Navy graphic

Navy officials say there will be no live-fire or amphibious assault craft and aircraft landings as part of their proposed exercises around Maui County.

Some residents, however, do not believe the Navy and are opposed to its Special Operations Training proposal that is up for comment in a draft environmental assessment. 

The Navy is proposing nearshore water training in the county, which will include naval special operation personnel diving and swimming and launching and recovering small vehicles designed to operate underwater. The training could possibly involve bringing in and removing naval personnel or equipment using watercraft.

No land or air-based training is proposed for the county, the Navy said.

On Maui, training is proposed for a portion of Maalaea Bay, closest to the pali.

On Molokai, the Navy map shows training along the nearshore area of the southwestern end of the island, or from Laau Point to Kaunakakai Wharf, according to residents familiar with the area.

And on Lanai, the training will take place in the areas off the shoreline to the west and south of the island.

Training could occur on federal and nonfederal property, the assessment said, but no training will occur without prior agreement from property owners of nonfederal lands.

“The proposed training is essentially the same types of low-impact nearshore training sailors have been conducting for decades around the Hawaiian Islands,” the Navy said in a news release Monday.

The proposed training is to build skills, experience and confidence in service members before deploying them around the globe, the Navy said.

“The proposed training challenges service members in a variety of warm weather locations with dynamic ocean conditions, and teaches skills to avoid detection, with the goal of leaving no trace of their presence,” the Navy said.

Comments on the draft environmental assessment must be received by Monday. The deadline was extended from Dec. 10 to allow for more public input.

The exercises are proposed to begin this year and also will be conducted on Oahu, Hawaii island and Kauai. Those islands will include land-, air- and water-based training.

Maui County residents said they fear the potential environmental and economic damage. Some just do not want the Navy around. 

“This is the best destination in the world and they want to do this?” asked Mary Dungans, an avid canoe paddler in Maalaea.

She worried about damage to sensitive areas around Maalaea, including the reefs. She also is concerned about the whales. 

“Maalaea Bay is filled with precious resources. We are always losing our precious coral,” she added. 

Dungans acknowledged that the assessment showed that there will be no large military ships in the harbor, only small watercraft, but she said: “I don’t believe it for a minute. It might start up that way.”

Dungans recognized the need for training for the Navy that “keeps us safe,” but “they don’t have to do it in our backyard. Go somewhere else.”

Rob Weltman, president of Sierra Club Maui’s executive committee, offered a similar assessment.

“We are concerned about the impact on marine life as well as our very sensitive coastal natural resources,” he said.

He said Thursday that the Maui group would discuss the issue at its upcoming meeting and had not yet made any public statements on the Navy’s proposal.

Molokai resident Lori Buchanan said Thursday that she and a group of other Molokai residents had a phone conference last week with staff of Hawaii’s congressional delegation. The group asked that Molokai be omitted from the proposed exercises.

They also wanted other military activity stopped. Buchanan said residents already see submarines surfacing outside of Pukoo. “We have military aircraft every day along our coastlines and north shore,” she added.

The assessment proposes no land-based exercises for Molokai, but Buchanan said “the fine print says it is.”

Those participating in the training will be naval special operations personnel with the occasional integrating of personnel from the special operations command of the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Joint Special Operations Command. 

The assessment examined three alternatives, which were no action and two action alternatives.

One alternative involves no more than 198 events on nonfederal land training sites. Activities on federal property will consist of up to 52 events per year.

The second alternative, for which the Navy is advocating, involves more training events. There would be no more than 330 events on nonfederal land. Those events on federal property would not exceed 265 per year.

The training is designed to be noninvasive, with the intent to leave no trace. Large coastal training areas were proposed in the draft environmental assessment but the Navy said only “very discrete sites” within the proposed areas would be used.

As for the water-based training, Maui County could see small electric powered underwater craft similar in size to an automobile or small truck. The submersibles would not rest on coral reefs. Sonar used in the submersibles are similar to commercially available fish finders, the Navy said. 

Biological resources in the training areas, including whales and turtles, “would likely respond” to the physical presence of trainees by temporarily stopping activities, the assessment said. The Navy said the impact is anticipated to be short-term and normal activities would resume after training events cease or move through the area.

To ensure the safety of fishermen, tour boats and other mariners, a safety buffer would be established and the Navy would coordinate with the U.S. Coast Guard to notify mariners, the Navy said in an email.

Safety support staff typically would visit a site prior to the training event. If the public is present in the area, staff would assess the situation, the Navy said.

During the exercises, a crew member would act as a lookout to avoid marine mammals who may enter the area.

The draft environmental assessment can be viewed at go.usa.gov/xUnDC and at the Kahului and Molokai public libraries. 

Written comments may be submitted by email to NFPAC-Receive@navy.mil or by mail to: Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific, Attn: Project Manager, EV21.JZ, 258 Makalapa Drive, Suite 100, Pearl Harbor, 96860-3134.

Comments must be postmarked or received online by Monday.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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