Marine Corps agrees to reduce operations at Upolu Airport

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KAILUA-KONA — Following concerns from community residents and an environmental legal group, Marine Corps Base Hawaii agreed to reduce operations at North Kohala’s Upolu Airport.

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KAILUA-KONA — Following concerns from community residents and an environmental legal group, Marine Corps Base Hawaii agreed to reduce operations at North Kohala’s Upolu Airport.

The issue came to a head after community members noted a dramatic increase in the number of operations — defined as a take off or landing — at Upolu Airport despite a 2012 impact statement suggesting there would be only a couple dozen operations a year.

“You can hear the Osprey come from miles away,” said Alyssa Slaven, a community organizer and resident of Hawi, on Tuesday. “It’s not like a normal helicopter; it’s not like a Cessna or an airplane. They have these huge propellers on them and you can feel it in your body and it rattles the whole house.”

Slaven said in just the first three months of 2017, she recorded 800 operations involving MV-22 Osprey aircraft.

That’s far and above what the U.S. Marine Corps previously outlined in their plans for Upolu Airport in a 2012 final environmental impact statement.

In that document, which explored basing Marine aircraft in Hawaii, Upolu Airport was no longer being considered for confined area landings, a change from a draft that suggested ramping up operations there. Instead, the airport would only be used for routine flight operations and diversion in case of emergencies or bad weather.

“This type of use would be infrequent,” stated the document, projecting that the number of operations would be closer to 25.

The decision to remove the North Hawaii airport from consideration came after Slaven and other residents pushed back against the proposal to increase activity there, citing community concerns for marine mammals, sacred sites and the ability to respond in the event of emergencies.

“Such noisy, dangerous operations are completely inappropriate for our quiet, rural community, with limited resources to respond to potential accidents,” said Slaven. “We were also concerned that training noise would harm marine mammals in the sanctuary offshore from the airport and would desecrate the nearby cliffs, heiau (temple) and birthplace of Kamehameha the Great.”

And as operations at the airport ramped up, Slaven reached out to Earthjustice, an environmental law group, for assistance.

Toward the end of March, attorney David L. Henkin wrote to Marine Corps Base Hawaii about the community’s concerns, noting that operations at the aiport have far exceeded what was projected.

And even if the Marine Corps wanted to argue that those operations were “routine flight operations” as permitted in the impact statement, they would still be subject to federal orders to “provide full and fair discussion” about how expanded operations would impact the area and evaluate potential alternatives.

“None of that analysis is found in the 2012 EIS,” Henkin wrote.

As a result, he said, they would need to prepare a supplemental impact statement covering those issues.

On Friday, legal counsel for Marine Corps Base Hawaii wrote Henkin, letting him know that Hawaii-based Marines aircraft “will return to the projected estimated number of 25 routine administrative operations per year at (Upolu) on Hawaii Island.”

Furthermore, the letter indicated that the Marine Corps will limit its use of the airport for the rest of 2017 except for emergency landings and weather diversions.

Finally, the Marine Corps stated that it is “re-evaluating its training requirements,” which might result in a supplemental impact statement. That action could change or increase air operations at the airport and other places compared to the 2012 document.

Both Henkin and Slaven welcomed the Marine Corps’ statement.

“We very much appreciate that the Marines are now taking the community’s concerns seriously and will honor their promises to keep operations at Upolu Airport to a bare minimum,” Slaven said.

Henkin called the resolution a “happy ending” to the issue.

He said in the month since the Marine Corps received the letter, his understanding is that there had been a halt in activity at the airport, suggesting the Corps is taking the community concerns seriously.

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“And so we’re hopeful that the problem’s now solved and the Marines can go about their business consistent with their environmental review, and the community can live comfortably knowing that they and the marine mammals and the sacred sites are all going to have a little peace,” said Henkin Tuesday.

“But should the situation change, our motto is ‘Because the Earth needs a good lawyer,’” he added. “So we’re not going anywhere.”

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