The island of Kaho'olawe: Back from oblivion

Dubbed 'Target Island', this Hawaiian idyll was a military testing site for half a century. Finally, the bombs are being cleared and nature is winning the war.

Phil Boucher
Thursday 27 July 2006 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It's five o'clock in the morning and Dean Tokishi walks out of a dilapidated former US Navy barracks and heads for the shores of the Pacific Ocean. After a final check of his scuba equipment the 30-year-old Hawaiian straps on some goggles and plunges into the sparkling turquoise waters surrounding the island of Kaho'olawe. Within seconds he is surrounded by a vivid explosion of butterfly fish, yellow tang, flounder, squirrelfish and an array of urchins, coral and other aquatic life. It is the sort of underwater idyll that attracts millions of tourists to Hawaii each year. Only Dean's destination is no pleasure beach.

Below him the rainbow-coloured world hides a deadly secret: a vast layer of unexploded bombs, rockets, artillery shells and torpedoes from Kaho'olawe's 50-year history as a US Navy bombing range. Even worse, the ordnance is now largely camouflaged by the shifting sands of the Kealaikahiki Channel, which runs between the island and nearby Maui. The corrosive effect of the sea water also means the explosives are highly unstable. So not only can Dean not see the bombs, but he can't venture too close without setting them off either. It is a catch-22 from hell.

"I try not to come into contact with the bottom because what may look like a rock or coral may well be ordnance of some kind," explains Dean, with massive understatement. "It's a huge problem because the ordnance litters the sea-bed. It can literally turn up anywhere."

So why swim among it? As an Ocean Resources Specialist for the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission (Kirc), Tokishi volunteered for the job. It is his part in a much wider Kirc programme to regenerate as much of the devastated island and its surrounding waters as possible - no matter how long it takes.

Given that Kaho'olawe has been slowly ravaged since the late 18th century, Kirc - and its sister organisation Protect Kaho'olawe Ohana (PKO) - have their work cut out.First it was goats, then cattle. But by 1941 the ecosystem could no longer support large herds and the ranchers moved out. Just as Kaho'olawe saw an end to the 150-year-old feeding frenzy, however, it was hurled back into the mire by events in nearby Pearl Harbor.

The day after the infamous Japanese raid the United States declared martial law across Hawaii and handed Kaho'olawe to the US navy. It took one look at the goat-filled dustbowl and recognised a gilt-edged opportunity to practice gunnery and bombing skills.

Within weeks the US and its allies were mercilessly pounding away with every form of explosive they could hurl off a plane, ship or submarine. Locals soon gave Kaho'olawe a new nickname: Target Island.

Even the end of the Second World War offered no respite: in 1965, at a point known as Sailor's Hat, some 500 tons of explosives were detonated to simulate an atomic blast - cracking the water table and allowing fresh water to seep into the ocean.

But the devastation did not go unopposed. By the mid-1970s a grassroots ecological movement had taken shape under the banner of the PKO, who started making illegal occupations of the island. Two, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, even became martyrs to the cause, when they mysteriously vanished after a night-time expedition to the island.

At the same time the PKO challenged the navy in Federal District Court, forcing it to study the environmental impact of the bombing raids. For a short time the admirals were placed into the absurd situation of working to preserve the island while simultaneously bombing it back to the Stone Age.

Then in 1993 the military handed Kaho'olawe back to the state of Hawaii. Kirc was set up soon after and, with the help of a $400m federal grant the Navy worked with civilian contractors to surface-clear 20,000 of the island's 28,000 acres, removing nine million pounds of scrap metal and 11,000 tyres in the process. A 10-mile, cross-island dirt road was also created at a cost of $8.8m, and, in a final act, the navy handed over $8.6m-worth of equipment, including trucks, strimmers, air-conditioners, beds, helicopter landing pads and toilets.

It was the biggest clean-up in its history of the US fleet - and its largest ever helicopter-borne operation. As far as it was concerned that resolved the issue.

For Kirc and the PKO, however, the regeneration work had only just begun. "Right now there are two levels of clearance on the island: tier one, which was only surface-cleared by the military; and tier two, which was cleared to four feet under the soil with gasoline-powered diggers," says Paul Higashino, natural resources specialist with Kirc.

"We only work in tier two as in the other areas we don't know what's half an inch under the ground. It reduces the risk of setting off something in the ground. But even then we dig very slowly, very carefully."

To date this has protected volunteers from triggering any bombs. But, in many ways, the explosives are the least of the environmentalist's problems.

"When it rains there is virtually no plant life to hold the water in the ground,' says Higashino. "There is so much run-off you're not getting replenishment of the soil. That's a real problem. Basically, the more we plant the better chance we have of catching the water and sustaining the island. But without replenishment it is very difficult to plant." Kirc and the PKO have turned to innovative regeneration methods such as hydro-seeding and hydro-mulching, where native seeds are mixed with recycled cardboard in a 600-gallon water-tank and sprayed across the surface through a high-powered pump.

In 2002 a 44,000 square-foot water catchment was dug that feeds two 185,000-gallon tanks whenever the rain arrives. This has led to some notable successes, with 45,000 plants currently fighting for their lives on the island.

Around 10,000 acres of barren soil are also becoming more plant-friendly, thanks to the simple introduction of hay bales, while native plant species like pili grass are grown on the neighbouring island of Moloka'i and helicoptered into the island for planting. But it's still slow, backbreaking work.

"We take little six-foot squares at a time and throw a handful of seeds onto the hard pan," says Higashino. "We then have to wait a year before the seedlings grow. But, as there's nothing to stop the wind, the soil then gets deposited in many different places, making the whole process a lot more difficult."

Despite these hardships Kirc has a waiting list for volunteers that runs until 2007. This means the planting will continue, and the island's hopes of recovery will go on improving, even though it will never be completely free of bombs.

Kaho'olawe's ordeal could also yet turn out to be a blessing, as its lack of pavements, power lines, hotels or fast-food franchises makes it a uniquely preserved strip of Hawaii - albeit one that has lost its trees, grass and running water.

The formation of a two-mile marine sanctuary around the island has even had unexpected benefits for the rest of the island chain. Tokishi explains: "Kaho'olawe is now working as a reserve for the other islands as the fish that are within the protected area leave and help to repopulate areas that have been over-fished. It's hard to describe what this means in words as the island stirs up a heartbreaking range of emotions. It's just really inspiring to see the animals and coral you have helped live go on to refuel other areas." Ironically, Target Island is slowly becoming a source of life.

And paradises still lost...

Vozrozhdeniya Island, Aral Sea

The testing site for the Soviet Union's Microbiological Warfare Group, Vozrozhdeniya was abandoned in 1991 and many biological agents have started to leak from their containers. Scientists fear animals will eventually carry the deadly germs to the wider world. In 2002 the Pentagon sent a team of 113 scientists to neutralise 200 tons of anthrax on the island.

The Marshall Islands, Pacific Ocean

The nuclear weapons tested in the Marshall Islands had the combined destructive force of 8,580 Hiroshima explosions. Since 1946, the US government has paid at least $759m in compensation to the Marshallese. However, medical, clean-up and resettlement costs continue to mount.

Novoya Zemlya, Arctic Ocean

Novoya Zemlya was the recipient of the largest thermonuclear device ever used: a 58-megaton air-dropped bomb detonated on October 23, 1961. A further 42 underground explosions are know to have taken place and 17 nuclear reactors have been dumped in the nearby Barents Sea. It is now earmarked to receive nuclear waste from 190 decommissioned Russian submarines.

Vieques, Atlantic Ocean

The tiny 52-square-mile island off the coast of Puerto Rico was used as a testing ground by the US Navy from 1941 to 2003. It has a legacy of toxic pollution, including radioactive depleted uranium shells. Many living on the island blame their high cancer rate (recorded at 26 percent above Puerto Rico's average) on the pollution.

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