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An MV-22 Osprey with the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing flies out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii to begin deployment to Australia, April 19, 2017.
An MV-22 Osprey with the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing flies out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii to begin deployment to Australia, April 19, 2017. (Aaron Patterson/U.S. Marine Corp)

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — The Marine Corps will end hundreds of Osprey and helicopter training flights taking place annually at a tiny Hawaiian airport after residents questioned their legality.

The number of routine flight operations at Upolu Airport on the big island of Hawaii will drop to 25 per year. That is the number projected in an environmental assessment completed in 2012 for beginning operations for two Marine Corps Osprey MV-22 squadrons.

Some residents of the small nearby town of Hawi had become increasingly unhappy about noise from the ramped-up number of Ospreys and H-1 helicopters, as well as what effect they might be having on the environment.

In late March, environmental law organization Earthjustice wrote a letter to the commander of Marine Corps Base Hawaii on Oahu asking about compliance with federal environmental law in regard to extensive use of the airport.

“In the first three months of 2017 alone, the community has logged over 800 Osprey and helicopter operations at Upolu Airport,” wrote David Henkin, an Earthjustice attorney.

That equated to air traffic 30 times greater than was estimated in the 2012 environmental statement, “already doubling the level of activity at the airport before MV-22 and H-1 aircraft came to Hawaii,” he wrote.

The environmental impact statement described the projected use of Upolu Airport as “infrequent” and limited to use in case of emergencies or due to bad weather at Pohakuloa Training Area, in the central part of the island.

“The level of training there far outstripped what they had disclosed in the environmental impact statement,” Henkin told Stars and Stripes.

On April 28, an attorney representing Marine Corps Base Hawaii’s commander notified Earthjustice that the flight tempo would return to 25 “routine administrative operations” per year at the airport.

Steven Forjohn, the Marine Corps attorney, wrote that airport use would be limited to only emergencies and “required weather diversions” for the remainder of the year.

“It’s an upbeat story all around,” Henkin said. “No need for litigation, just citizens reaching out to the Marines and pointing out a problem, and the Marines voluntarily changing what they’re doing to comply with the law and their prior promises to the community. So we’re happy.”

The Marine Corps, however, is re-evaluating its Hawaii training requirements, which could initiate a supplemental environmental impact study, Forjohn wrote.

Such a study might seek greater flexibility in using Upolu Airport.

Marine Corps Base Hawaii said in a statement it would compensate for the lost access to the airport by exploring the reactivation of viable training areas through the Base’s Range Resuscitation Initiative.

“The program calls for an overview of current government-owned or leased training areas in Hawaii to spread load training area usage,” the statement said. Twitter: @WyattOlson

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