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Little Base Has Big Heart for Environment

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

KANEOHE BAY MARINE CORPS BASE, Hawaii, April 4, 1997 – As the Pali Highway descends from Oahu's cloud-covered Ko'olau Mountains, the Mokapu Peninsula, a majestic bay and a near cloudless sky frame the startlingly blue Pacific Ocean.

Here is one of Oahu's most pristine coastlines, and it is easy to understand why Hawaiians cherish and seek to preserve its beauty. The Marine Corps understands -- and works hard to protect what some locals consider kapu -- sacred.

Although this base occupies only about five square miles of the peninsula, within its borders lie ancient burial grounds, endangered wildlife, historical sites and fragile, erosion-prone coastlines.

For years, military organizations paid only passing attention to the property's historical significance and environmental fragility. In the past, the military used sand from dunes that served as the largest-known native Hawaiian burial grounds as fill around the base. Brush fires started during gunnery training destroyed the nesting sites of red-footed boobies. These birds burned to death rather than leave their nests and eggs. Pickleweed and mangrove trees choked the mud flats where another bird, Hawaiian stilts, built nests so their newly hatched chicks could rush for their natural habitat, the sea.

Fifteen years ago, the Marines hired Diane Dragot to work with her Hawaiian counterparts in establishing some environmental controls at the base. Today, a staff of 35 under the direction of Maj. Paul D'Antonio work environmental programs that in fiscal 1995 won top honors for natural resources conservation from the Navy and DoD. Their programs and initiatives reflect the Marine Corps' three environmental pillars -- compliance, conservation and pollution prevention.

"The Navy's environmental budget isn't growing, but the pollution prevention portion will get much larger," D'Antonio said. "Eventually, we will be in compliance and then just monitor our resources to remain in compliance. But there's still a lot of work ahead."

Much of the work requires knowledge of the property's history, Dragot said. "We reconnected with Hawaiian families displaced during World War II when the base was built on what had been their property. We created an oral history of the land and developed an inventory of what used to be here. With this information, we learned what the land was like before the military came, and much of what we have done since is to try to restore the grounds to their natural [premilitary] habitat."

The Marines aren't going anywhere, however, and the last Base Realignment and Closure Commission directed relocation here of aircraft assets from across the island at Naval Air Station Barbers Point. Some construction will occur, but armed with the environmental inventory, base engineers will be able to ensure compatibility between future and past.

Meanwhile, the base continues cleaning up from past indifference, re-establishing native plants and promoting a pervasive culture in which recycling is a daily fact of life. Clean-up efforts include such activities as repairing damaged from old tanks that leaked jet fuel into the soil.

When the base got serious about recycling, the commanding officer personally inspected the refuse of people using the base landfill. "He'd point out recyclable items and send them back home with directions to 'recycle, recycle, recycle,'" D'Antonio said.

Base residents got the message. Within a couple years, the major said, the Marine Corps base was the largest DoD recycler on the island. "We moved from passive to active recycling," explained George Lingle, who supervises compliance with environmental laws and regulations. "In 18 months, the amount of waste we divert from our landfill increased 800 percent."

Discarded wood became mulch used for weed control, while officials packaged other reusable materials. In the first year, the base diverted 90 percent of cardboard from the landfill. A Marine stationed here designed a poster that urged everyone to "reduce, reuse, recycle."

"The philosophy of recycling appeals to some Marines, particularly younger ones," D'Antonio said. "But for most Marines, we show the money issues. For example, [Marine Corps Base] Quantico [Va.] recently closed one landfill and opened a new one at a cost of $36 million. That money could have paid for a new dormitory or purchased new weapons and equipment. Every dollar spent on the environment takes away from other programs."

Kaneohe Bay, too, is spending money on capping an old landfill and starting a new one. However, James Abbott, head hazardous waste management here, arranged funding from the Naval Facilities Engineering Service Center, Port Hueneme, Calif., by turning the operation into research and development projects.

One project is high-tech. "We're studying the "capping" of the Kaneohe Bay landfill, which must be completed by 2003, by placing computer-controlled sensors in the landfill to measure meteorological data," Abbott explained. "Port Hueneme can call the computer anytime, download information, analyze it and build reports."

The project looks at six different scenarios for closing the landfill. "Ultimately, we hope to show how natural vegetation cover will allow us to close the landfill at one-hundredth of the nominal cost of standard closures," Abbott said. He added while the data collected will be extremely beneficial for Kaneohe Bay, it potentially could be used anywhere.

A second project funded by the Port Hueneme center involves removal of jet fuel from the ground. George Lingle supervises three soil-cleansing techniques: bioslurping (a technique proposed by Port Hueneme, where tubes are inserted in the soil to slurp out the pollution) or "cooking" the contaminants in heat piles or land farming. Odd terms, they each achieve the same objective -- natural decontamination of soil.

"In the past, we hauled contaminated soil to a thermal treatment plant off base," Lingle said. "It cost us $120 per cubic yard, and we didn't get the soil back. By treating our soil on base, we save money and can reuse the decontaminated soil."

Land farming may produce the best results, Lingle said. Truckloads of dirt are spread over a rectangular tract about half the size of a football field, precisely 18 inches deep. Tilling enables the soil's natural microorganisms sufficient air to thrive. "Then, we just let the bugs do their job," Lingle said.

Treating 200 to 300 cubic yards at a time for just a few weeks costs about $35 per cubic yard and produces clean, reusable soil.

Wherever the Marines or contractors dig on the base, they uncover artifacts and bones from the sites of earlier residents. "We're uncovering burial sites continuously," Dragot said. "Sand used as fill when the Navy first built the base came from dunes along the coast where the burials took place."

As a result, the engineers require an archaeological expert to oversee many construction projects, particularly where the engineers know from surveys of past residents the site occupies a former habitat. "We know, for example, that the runway and aprons were built right over former residential property," Dragot said.

Past construction also affected the water quality of Kaneohe Bay, the most strictly regulated waters in the state. "Because of the reef and tidal waters, the bay doesn't flush very well," D'Antonio explained. "So we had to replumb every operation that was dumping into the bay. There were a lot of motor pools with oil-water separators plumbed to storm drains. We replumbed them to flow to the treatment plant instead."

Now Kaneohe Bay motor pools use water recyclers, conserving water costs, which are high. "We have the biggest water bill in the Marine Corps," D'Antonio noted. The base spends $1 million a year on the precious resource. Up to 500,000 gallons a day of recycled water keep the base golf course and athletic fields green. The project has become a model for the entire state, D'Antonio said.

Besides conserving soil, the Marines are reclaiming property overtaken by intrusive plant life. By doing so, they have improved the plight of native birds while still being able to conduct rigorous amphibious vehicle and gunnery training. One effort actually requires Marine amphibious assault vehicles to tear up the vegetation.

"Marines have really taken a liking to what they call 'mud ops,'" Dragot said. The tracked vehicles till the vegetation, creating mud beds the stilts required for nesting. "It gives them a change of pace and helps the environment."

Old tires and carpets also make good nests for boobies, the environmentalists found. Local Girl Scouts build the carpet nests, Dragon noted. "As a result," she said, "we've been able to lure some of the birds away from the area where the Marines fire their weapons.

"Building community involvement is the key to success," she said. "Once environmental protection becomes part of the culture, we can manage what we call 'sustainable development.'"

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