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Protest outside PTA as military training heats up

Updated: 
March 30, 2017 - 12:05am

POHAKULOA TRAINING AREA MAIN GATE — Their oli were loud, but the teeth-rattling boom of sporadic mortar rounds was louder, as more than 50 protesters employed Native Hawaiian chants to express their opposition to the latest series of training exercises at the U.S. Army garrison.

As 15-20 mph gusts whipped their flags, homemade signs and in one case, a surfboard, the protesters faced the facility across Saddle Road on Wednesday, several with mouths and noses covered by surgical masks or kerchiefs.

They decried war, sought environmental protections and cited health concerns from the artillery disturbing the depleted uranium that the Army has acknowledged still contaminates the site.

“The bombing is just too much,” said Nanci Munro, of Keaau, joining the rally across Saddle Road from the gate. “They know there’s depleted uranium there. The bombing is just going to blow the dust around.”

At issue for the protesters are exercises taking place through April 21 involving ground-based training for Army and Marines, including training with mortar and artillery, machine guns, grenade launchers, rifle grenades and demolitions, according to a notice from U.S. Army Garrison Pohakuloa.

Wednesday’s training featured field artillery 155mm high explosive rounds, the ones causing the particularly loud and deep booms. Other training will include unmanned aerial vehicle training and helicopter gunnery training, the announcement said.

“The military in Hawaii appreciates the community’s understanding and continued support for local military training,” said spokeswoman Kayla Overton in the announcement. “While sometimes loud, the sounds of training represent how the military ensures the nation’s service members are ready to accomplish the mission and return home safely.”

Overton told West Hawaii Today on Wednesday the periodic exercises aren’t new, but the public announcements are. The announcement said people can call the Pohakuloa public affairs office to report noise concerns at 969-1966.

“These are routine training activities and the units are scheduled to conduct both day and night live fire during their rotation at PTA,” Garrison Commander LTC Christopher Marquez said in a statement. “We are entering our busy season and will provide updates on a monthly basis through our Training Advisory media releases.”

That’s still not enough transparency for longtime Hilo activist Jim Albertini, who said he’s been asking the garrison to allow a group to come in for a tour of the drone field and firing range. So far, he’s been stood up and stonewalled, he said, while other groups have been allowed inside.

Approximately 12,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and Coast Guard train at PTA throughout the year, including other federal agencies. Other federal and state agencies train at PTA include Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hawaii Police Department, county sheriffs, National Park Service Police, and the Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, according to Marquez.

Unit training density increases during summer months due in part to Hawaii Reserve and National Guard annual training rotations. On average, PTA hosts 500-1500 trainees per month, he said.

Protesters came from all over the island, and they differed in what brought them to the high plateau between the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa ranges, site of the 133,000-acre training area that’s one of the largest, if not the largest, such facilities in the Pacific.

“It got to where I was surfing the other day, and I could hear it in the ocean,” said Koa Paulo of Waimea, the surfboard-toter. “It’s gotten to where it’s louder and louder.”

His red and white surfboard bore the statement, “Protect Pohakuloa” on the bottom.

Waikii farmer Ruth Aloua’s cardboard sign was also marked, “Protect Pohakuloa,” but her worries weren’t about the noise a much as the dust that she feared could be contaminated with DU.

The weakly radioactive material was used in spotting rounds for the Davy Crockett tripod-mounted gun tested at PTA between 1962 and 1968. The Army has entered an agreement with the Nuclear Regulatry Commission to contain DU, but it doesn’t have to remove the substance.

“No high explosives are fired into the DU Radiation Control Areas as per Department of Defense directives,” Marquez said. “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that DU at PTA does not pose a danger to the public.”

Aloua said her farm is downwind from the training area.

“I’m concerned about our water, our aquifer,” she said. “That affects the feed we give the animals we raise.”

Other signs said, “end military pollution,” “stop bombing Hawaii, “stop live-fire ranges” and “Depleted uranium. Clean up your DUDU.”

Some of the more experienced sign-toters recycled their “We are Mauna Kea”signs from protesting construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope at the observatory atop Mauna Kea.

Others were more lyrical.

“Arms are for hugging,” said a sign ripped from a cardboard box and colored with markers, hoisted by North Kohala resident Crystal West.

“This is my aina and what they do here affects all of us,” West said. “They do training and they leave, but we’re still here.”

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