The Blight of Large Scale Military Expansion

The Hawaiian Islands are well known all over the world as favorite vacation destinations and for the North Shore’s amazing surf competitions. Dozens of movies and television shows have given viewers a depiction of one part of Hawaiian life or another, but perhaps the most profoundly known piece of Hawaii is Pearl Harbor and what it has come to stand for after the 1941 attack that drove America into WWII. However, history prior to that fateful day and after naval expansion is not often mentioned. Unfortunately, it is that history which explains the declination of Pearl Harbor’s ecosystem and the bitterness and contempt many locals feel toward the United States military presence. On top of the hostile take-over by the U.S. military in the late 1800s, a once pristine ecological system that provided bountifully for its inhabitants became polluted and toxic. Years of uncontrolled dumping, radioactive leakage from nuclear powered submarines, and chemical runoff turned Pearl Harbor into a manmade disaster. Since the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the 1970s, efforts have been made in coordination with the U.S. Navy to clean up and repair as much as possible. While this is a step in the right direction in the broadest sense, military officials must also consider the smaller details which first led to the defilement of places like Pearl Harbor. An awareness of environmental impact as well as the cultural element of local populations can greatly reduce the magnitude of damage to both facets.

Negativity has existed toward the U.S. military presence since the forced dethroning of the Hawaiian queen in 1893. As Naval History and Heritage Command notes, At the time, a natural coral reef blocked most of the harbor entrance allowing only small vessels to enter through a narrow inlet. The land lease granted to the U.S. by the Hawaiian government had required only sail power be used at the entrance in order to preserve delicate marine life. With that government entity overthrown, the US military was free to do as it pleased, beginning with the Appropriation Act of 1901 to improve the facilities, including accommodating larger vessels in the harbor. The coral barrier was destroyed and the harbor dredged. Locals were outraged by the destruction of what was believed to be home to the shark goddess who kept out man eating sharks and protected the abundant fish population. The marring of this beautiful ecosystem only added to the bad taste.

Fast forward half a century or so and not only has Pearl Harbor seen the destruction of war, but the destruction of man’s pollution. Without any regulation, the military was free to dump toxic waste into the ocean and wash chemical and oil runoff into harbor waters. In Navy Strikes Oil at Pearl Harbor, But Isn’t Thrilled to Find It,” Teresa Dawson points out that nuclear powered vessels ran without any thought or care over the radioactive material leaking into the waters and settling on the bottom of the harbor, which is important habitat to at least three species of sea turtles and four endemic and endangered water birds. Coral that used to grow in the area has long since disappeared, and the state Health Department had to warn residents and visitors that fish caught in the harbor may contain chemicals that are hazardous to health. The original land leases to the Unites States were created as a sign of trust between the two governments, and that trust was decimated once the U.S. gained total control of the land.

On a more positive note, people eventually wised up, the EPA was born and efforts to address and fix these poisonous issues began. Locating and establishing priority to various polluted areas gave the EPA a system to begin restoration and clean-up processes. Any area that posed a threat to human health and/or environment from hazardous waste was labeled a superfund site. Pearl Harbor contained multiple superfund sites associated with the Naval Complex. In the late 1980s, the U.S. Navy began looking into the extent of the damage at those sites and what they found was astonishing — hundreds of thousands of gallons of petroleum based pollutant lining the beds across all three harbor lochs. In response to this discovery, extraction facilities were built in each loch to pull oil out of sediment and the sea floor, which is then stored at a facility until it can be recycled off site. The Navy has also conducted studies to determine the efficacy of phytoextraction techniques (uptake through plant growth) to pull toxic metals from soil. As long as Pearl Harbor is considered a superfund site, the EPA will continue its involvement in restoration. This means scheduled surveys using underwater gamma probes to locate possible radioactivity, taking core samples to determine distribution in sediment, analyzing aquatic life and vegetation samples for gamma-emitting radioisotopes, and surveying land adjacent to the harbor for gamma radiation. The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program also monitors sink sites to detect any hazardous leaks from non salvaged naval vessels. Consistent involvement should ensure every step is taken to repair as much as possible.

But what happens when Pearl Harbor loses its superfund status? On the surface, this might not be considered a bad thing since it means restoration strategies are working. However, this only means that hazard levels have dropped below standardized numbers, making Pearl Harbor less toxic. While EPA data shows drops in toxicity of all samples, toxicity levels in aquatic life and vegetation are generally higher than water and decrease at a slower rate. These are organisms that live in or around polluted sediment and feed off that same toxic vegetation. They do not simply dilute into nothingness, which is why recreational and local fishing is not recommended. Residents and tourists should understand that restoration progress is not a blanket term for safety.

Although the Navy has taken steps to repair the damage with programs like the Installation Restoration program, these are in response to federal requirements. Military bases all over the world have adopted numerous programs to comply with federal requirements outlined in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980. Many of these programs were developed to stop environmentally hazardous practices and prevent future mishaps, but whether or not government officials believe in the necessity or care about the outcomes of such programs is questionable. The Navy will continue to clean up Pearl Harbor and execute required practices to prevent pollution and spillages as long as it is told to do so, but with Hawaii’s prime location, the military will continue to operate in the area full force, which may be detrimental to restoration. It is up to the EPA and military officials to decide how much improvement is enough.

Pearl Harbor will always have a profound meaning for American citizens and service members, but it will also have a profoundly different meaning to the locals who spend their entire lives there. For the American military, Hawaii is strategically positioned as a central command location–it provides a necessary pit stop for overseas movement, and closer monitoring of our neighbors to the west. For Hawaiian residents, it is their home, their history, their culture and a way of life. Anyone can paint a compelling picture for or against military presence, but the simple fact is, that presence will always exist in Hawaii. Mankind’s nature will always include the quest for power or the upper hand and Hawaii is positioned in such a way as to provide that upper hand on a global scale. Pearl Harbor just happens to be the state’s most favorable spot for a large naval fleet. However, the military is more than the broad force of global vision. Each installation has various impacts on its surrounding areas.  Perhaps the best we can do is to require an actual effort toward forethought and consideration of local populations and the environment when planning military growth in the future. Otherwise, only time and continued monitoring play a part in the rest of the story.


tracy-picTracy Terry is currently working toward a degree in secondary education in the hopes of inspiring young minds toward science and math.