A Honolulu Circuit Court judge has ruled the state breached its duties to “malama ‘aina” with respect to lands it is leasing to the U.S. Army as part of the Pohakuloa Training Area on Hawaii Island.
Specifically, Judge Gary Chang found the Department of Land and Natural Resources failed to ensure the Army cleans up munitions following training exercises on the 22,971 acres, as required by the 65-year lease that began in August 1964.
PTA encompasses 133,000 acres, nearly all of which is federal land, between Maunakea and Mauna Loa. The lawsuit, filed by Hawaii Island residents Clarence Ching and Mary Maxine Kahaulelio in 2014, pertained only to the state lands. A trial was held in 2015.
Attorney David Kimo Frankel of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., which represented the plaintiffs, said in a press release that the ruling was the first time a court affirmed the state’s duty to “malama ‘aina,” meaning to care for the land.
Chang’s order requires the DLNR to inspect the area to ensure compliance with the lease and prevents the department from entering into a new lease until it is determined the Army is complying with the terms. The existing lease ends in August 2029.
The Army wasn’t a defendant in the case. A spokesperson couldn’t be reached for comment late Tuesday afternoon.
In a statement, DLNR said it will work with the Army to develop a formal inspection, monitoring and reporting process. The order requires it to have a plan submitted by Dec. 28.
“We appreciate that this proceeding brought further focus to regular inspections and ongoing work with the Army to properly steward the leased lands,” said Suzanne Case, chairwoman of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources. “This work has already been underway for several years.”
Meanwhile, the state attorney general’s office is reviewing the ruling to determine whether the state will appeal.
Under the lease, the Army paid $1 for the entire 65-year period.
According to the ruling, the state lands have been used for live ammunition firing. It says cultural monitors have “observed military debris, including unexploded ordnance and spent shell casings, scattered across the subject lands.”
Prior to the lawsuit, the state conducted inspections only twice, in 1984 and 1994.
“Defendants do not appear to be well-informed of the state of military training exercises and its effects upon the subject lands,” the ruling says. “The lack of regular, meaningful inspection and monitoring of the subject lands by defendants have contributed toward defendants’ failure to malama ‘aina the subject lands under the said lease.
“… These failures constitute a breach of defendants’ trust duties that apply to the subject lands. This failure has harmed, impaired, diminished or otherwise adversely affected plaintiffs’ cultural interests in the subject lands.”
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