Pohakuloa is located on Saddle Road between the majestic slopes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. At over 6,000 feet in elevation, this Hawaii land boasts cool, breezy weather, an ironic contrast to the desertous landscape’s solid lakes of volcanic rock. Home to imported pigs, goats, and sheep, as well as many endangered Hawaiian plants and animals, the land is the natural habitat of several types of precious Hawaiian wildlife. It is also hallowed ground, Hawaii land featuring over 600 sacred Hawaiian sites.

In a particularly sardonic form of irony, this Hawaii land is also home to the Pohakuloa Training Area and Bradshaw Army Airfield, which together comprise the largest training area for the United States’ Army in the Pacific. PTA is a multifunctioning training facility that permits trainees to leverage all military weapons systems in their full capacities. Utilized primarily by the 25th Infantry Division, PTA also hosts trainings for the Hawaii Army National Guard, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and International Allied Forces. PTA hosts over 13,000 soldiers per year on its 108,863 acres, granting multiple military divisions access to the U.S. Army Pacific’s largest live-fire range.

PTA is also a major point of contention for Native Hawaiians and environmental activists concerned with protecting Hawaii land. As RIMPAC, the world’s largest international maritime exercise, is playing out over our heads this week here at Gingerhill, we have decided to explore some of the political and environmental controversies surrounding the military’s use of PTA.

The Origins of Pohakuloa

President Theodore Roosevelt stated in 1900 that he “wish(ed) for the United States to be the dominant power on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.” It was undoubtedly that intention that prompted the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani and the subsequent annexation of the Hawaiian Islands as the Territory of Hawaii in 1898.

Hawaii’s remote location places it within close range of South Asia and the Pacific Islands. The U.S. military’s occupation of the islands was a strategic maneuver to exert power over these countries, solidifying America’s intensifying dominance on the world stage. One could even argue that the occupation of Hawaii and subsequent establishment of a strong military presence in the Pacific helped to catapult the United States to hegemonic status over the course of the 20th century.

PTA first hosted practice for military maneuvers in the year 1942 in training for combat in World War II. It formally became an installation of the United States Army in 1956. Today, about 14.8 million live rounds of ammunition are fired on PTA’s grounds annually. Bombing practices have generated over $400 million in repairs since their cessation.

Environmental Concerns

The maneuvers that the Army performs at Pohakuloa pose a serious threat to the environment. Years of artillery practice have released toxic elements like beryllium, aluminum, arsenic, and lead into Hawaiian soil. The lands are also contaminated with other military toxins that threaten spread and contamination via winds, flooding, and traffic.

One of the primary concerns of environmental activists is the presence of potentially harmful levels of Depleted Uranium (DU) on PTA’s grounds. DU is a uranium enrichment byproduct, higher in density than lead and 40% less radioactive than raw uranium. Despite its meager intensity relative to raw uranium, DU is a major health concern for plant, animal, and human life. Excessive exposure to DU has the potential to inhibit optimal liver, brain, kidney, and heart function. Those most at risk are, of course, PTA trainees and the wildlife inhabiting the area.

DU contamination at PTA is largely the byproduct of atomic weapons systems deployment during the Cold War. As was finally discovered in 2005, the military tested elements of the Davy Crocket System, a recoilless rifle system, at PTA between 1962 and 1968. Despite the Hawaii County Council’s affirmative vote on a resolution to cease live-fire training before addressing Depleted Uranium contamination in 2008, the military continues live-fire training on PTA grounds.

Other Potential Threats

Poisonous military toxins and DU are not the only environmental threats deriving from the utilization of PTA. In 2017, USDA Wildlife Services sought permission from the Environmental Protection Agency to test a powerful rodenticide on PTA’s grounds—a massive potential threat to the wildlife in the area.

There are fifteen bird species inhabiting the PTA that fall under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Other endangered species inhabiting the area include the Hawaiian hoary bat, Hawaiian hawk, and the Hawaiian goose. Testing rodenticide in the area would threaten not just rodents, but also their predators and other animals living in the area, like wild goats and pigs. And the rodenticide isn’t a benevolent one. It causes a slow, painful, and cruel death, and is accompanied by internal bleeding in birds and mammals.

Environmental activists were also concerned that the chemical would contaminate recently discovered sources of clean groundwater beneath PTA. It is not unlikely that, should the testing of the rodenticide go unopposed by legal authorities, testing of hazardous poisons will continue on PTA grounds.

PTA: A Power Move

We live on a small, remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In fact, the cluster of Hawaiian Islands together comprises the most isolated landmass in the world. Material goods are incredibly expensive because the cost of importation compounds the value of goods themselves. The point? The Big Island has finite resources. PTA’s thousands of acres are squandering those finite sources of Hawaii land, animals, and clean water. And they’re doing so for the sake of  a country that never held the interest of Native Hawaiians at heart. One could even argue that the imposition of the U.S. military has only served to dilute Native Hawaiian culture, displacing Native Hawaiians and co-opting sacred lands in the quest for global hegemony and economic exploitation.

Kyle Kajihiro of Hawaii Peace and Justice points out that the military operations in Hawaii are only a means of solidifying political power in the Pacific. The secondary interests of job creation and economic vigor have continued to trump those of Hawaiian people and Hawaii land. The result: Ever-intensifying economic dependence upon environmentally destructive military activity on the islands.

The men and women of the U.S. military demonstrate inimitable bravery and laudable self-sacrifice in serving their country. Their strength, devotion, and value are incontestable. But is PTA really the right place for this destructive military training? Is it worth the controversy? Would Native Hawaiian culture and endangered species fare better if the military were to utilize another place for live-fire training—perhaps one that is not constrained by finite resources and cultural oppression? These are all critical questions that will require ongoing discussion and debate. Do your research, open your heart, and cultivate your own opinions. We would love to hear them.

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