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Munitions cleanup plan gets finishing touches

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is finalizing a proposed plan that would remove unexploded ordnance from the former Makanalua Bombing Range on Molokai’s Kalaupapa peninsula.

The agency is finalizing a proposed munitions cleanup plan for the 937-acre region on the north-central coast of the peninsula, which officials say the military used for aerial bombing, rockets and gunnery practice from 1942 to 1945 during World War II.

Officials said they expect to present the proposed plan next month during public meetings held at the Kalaupapa settlement and topside Molokai. The public will have 30 days to comment.

“Hawaii is one of the most beautiful places in the world. However, many people forget or do not realize there is still a risk from unexploded ordnance in certain areas, especially in former defense sites,” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Honolulu District spokesman Joseph Bonfiglio said in an email.

He added that the Territory of Hawaii issued a permit to the U.S. Navy in 1941 to use the Makanalua area for aerial bombing. Typical aircraft involved in the training were Hellcats, Wildcats, Dauntless and Corsairs.

The corps completed an initial site inspection in 2009, during which it found munitions and explosives of concern. Munitions debris were found at the former Makanalua Bombing Range, also known as Kalaupapa Bombing Target and Kalaupapa Naval Bombing Range. The site is southeast of the Kalaupapa Airport and east of the Molokai Lighthouse within Kalaupapa National Historical Park, but away from the settlement where most residents live.

The corps returned to the peninsula last year do a more comprehensive six-week remedial investigation that brought in crews to evaluate possible target areas, use instruments to detect unexploded bombs and remove any ordnance they found at the surface.

Kalaupapa is not only a cultural treasure and home for a handful of Hansen’s disease patients that still live there, but the peninsula on Molokai’s north shore is also home to a number of threatened and endangered species such as the Blackburn’s sphinx moths, Newell’s shearwater, Hawaiian petrel, Hawaiian hoary bat and a slew of other species.

Because of the cultural and natural resources specific to Kalaupapa, the corps employed both a qualified archaeologist and biologist throughout the site investigation to ensure any potential impacts to sensitive resources were avoided and minimized, Bonfiglio said.

The land is owned by the state and managed by the U.S. National Park Service and state departments of Health and Land and Natural Resources.

During a community meeting on Molokai last month, agencies involved with the cleanup of formerly used defense sites selected one out of seven possible remedial action plans for Kalaupapa, according to The Molokai Dispatch newspaper. The proposed alternative, which must first be discussed and accepted by the community, would remove all surface munition above ground, near trails and roads and in a 38-acre “high-density area” where the majority of munitions are located, according to the community paper. That plan would cost about $4.8 million and be federally funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.

How soon the actual cleanup might commence depends largely on community input and the availability of federal funding, but officials said the munitions cleanup itself at the Kalaupapa site would likely be completed within five years. More than 70 sites in Hawaii are being considered for munitions cleanup projects, and the Corps must prioritize each project based on available funding.

The corps recently completed a remedial investigation of a formerly used defense site at the Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve along the southwest coast of Maui. Now, the corps is working to complete a feasibility study. It expects to present a proposed plan to the public early next year.

In the meantime, anyone who comes across an item that could be unexploded ordnance should stay away from it and report it to the police.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.

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