Safety issue prompts Navy to deny Kaho'olawe access

Honolulu Advertiser
Friday, February 7, 2003

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Navy has barred the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana from making its scheduled February trip because of a dispute over safety regulations governing visits to the island, a former military bombing range that is now a sanctuary for Hawaiian cultural groups.

The trip, which had been set for Feb. 13-16, would have included a group from the Big Island school Ehukai Malino O Kona and a Maui hula halau.

Future trips would be allowed if the Navy is satisfied that civilians are adhering to rules meant to keep them safe on an island that still contains live ordnance from years of naval bombardment, aircraft bombing runs and other military exercises, a Navy spokeswoman said.

But the 'Ohana said it has maintained strict safety practices while on the island.

The denial of access marks a souring in the relations between the Navy and the 'Ohana, which serves as the court-designated civilian steward of the island and had battled the Navy for years to stop the bombing.

It also occurs only nine months before federal law conveys control of the island back to the state; beginning Nov. 11, the state Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission will control access to the island, not the Navy.

Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Jane Campbell said the cancellation of the February trip stemmed from a dispute over safety regulations that arose during the 'Ohana's January trip, a ceremonial visit timed to coincide with the end of the Hawaiian makahiki season.

"The Navy is taking the safe prudent action to ensure absolutely safe access to the best of our ability," Campbell said.

The Navy asked the commission to review the procedures from the Jan. 17-20 trip, and the panel concluded that the problem originated in a communications breakdown between the Navy and the 'Ohana, said commission executive director Keoni Fairbanks.

One aspect of the dispute is the Navy's allegation that the 'Ohana ventured into a restricted area without an escort. The 'Ohana maintains that the group had gone into the Pu'u Moiwi area believing that route was approved as an area not requiring escort.

Davianna McGregor, one of the 'Ohana's access coordinators, said the area is a place regularly visited on earlier trips and had been on the proposed itinerary for the January trip.

Another dispute arose over the 'Ohana's practice of occasionally bringing children on trips, in particular the inclusion of a 5-year-old and a 17-month-old on the January guest list. (The children ended up staying home because of bad weather).

Campbell said that prompted the Navy to revert to an earlier, more stringent policy against children under 15, one that is based on the Code of Federal Regulations.

McGregor said an earlier agreement with the Navy stipulated that children under age 15 could be admitted under certain rules ensuring supervision. She added that children as young as a year old have been approved in the past.

"It's completely arbitrary," she said of the Navy's position. "A 5-year-old had come with us in April, and we had a 2-year-old come in July with her parents."

The whole dispute, McGregor said, was based on a misunderstanding.

"I would not approve of the group going into an area that wasn't cleared," she said. "I don't want people veering off. I'm very particular and I'm very militant."

Campbell said the Navy would like the 'Ohana to take steps to restore "good faith," including revising its rules about who will be allowed on the island. "We're more than willing to look at future requests if we see that positive steps are taken," Campbell said. "There have to be actions to show that such safety violations won't take place in the future."

Meanwhile, hula halau Pukalani Hula Hale of Maui was working with the office of U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye to see if it could be granted access for a Feb. 14 visit. The halau, which had been part of the original 'Ohana group for February, wants access for the day so its dancers can prepare a Kaho'olawe chant being learned for the Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition.

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