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Plan to upgrade, expand West Loch munitions annex has neighbors on edge

Men watch as USS LST-39 is afire in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, after the May 21, 1944, explosion that destroyed several LSTs in the West Loch. Other vessels are alongside and nearby engaged in firefighting.

NATIONAL ARCHIVES

By TIMOTHY HURLEY | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: September 15, 2020

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — In 1944 a munitions accident triggered an explosion that rocked West Loch, leaving 163 men dead and nearly 400 wounded in what is considered Pearl Harbor’s second-worst disaster in terms of fatalities.

Today, 76 years later, a military plan to expand the munitions depots at West Loch has left some people in neighboring communities wondering whether they could be exposed to similar danger.

A draft environmental assessment describes a new Army munitions storage complex at the Navy’s West Loch Annex within Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The project would be built over several phases of construction, the first of which is scheduled to begin in 2022.

The complex would be home to 35 storage magazines and a range of support structures over 50 acres, allowing for the relocation of existing Army munitions operations at Lualualei Annex in Waianae.

In addition, the Navy is building a new munitions facility at the same West Loch Annex featuring 24 new box magazines for storage of Navy ordnance.

Last month Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii awarded Nan Inc. a $33 million contract to build the magazines by September 2022.

Some community members, meanwhile, are a bit nervous about the plans. The military is being far too quiet about the latest project, they say, and the public needs to be better informed about what’s going on.

“I think they should put this on pause,” said Will Espero, a former state senator from Ewa Beach who is running for Honolulu City Council. “A lot of people don’t know about this.”

Even those who do know about the project are wary.

“The plan contains too much uncertainty and undisclosed materials,” said Poka Laenui of the Institute for the Advancement of Hawaiian Affairs. “The public is unable to effectively participate in this process or to condone an action which it does not understand.”

Laenui said a full environmental impact statement should be done, given the impact of the proposal.

Haunani Hess, a Native Hawaiian who lives on the Pearl City Peninsula, said the 1944 munitions disaster shows what can happen at such a facility.

What’s more, the historical targeting of Pearl Harbor because of its location and capacity “should stand as an obvious telltale sign,” especially with so many densely populated communities surrounding West Loch, Hess said.

“West Loch will be receiving and storing new magazines, and will most likely transport to and from Lualualei Valley. Is it possible to predict accurate calculation for moving explosives?” she said.

Ewa Beach historian John Bond said he believes a vast area of West Oahu, from Waipahu to Kapolei to Iroquois Point, could be vulnerable in an accident.

“There are very major impacts to the Ewa/West Oahu community, and there have been no hearings or presentations made for the public to understand what is going to happen literally in their backyards,” Bond said.

Bond said he thinks the military is using old blast zone data, and he says he can prove it using a United Nations software program, plus Department of Defense data and Army blast zone calculations released during a 2018 public review of a similar project at a base in North Carolina.

By his calculations, the potential blast effects at West Loch could extent out more than 3.5 miles, affecting Kapolei, Ewa, Kunia-Waipahu, Ford Island-Hickam, Haseko, Ewa Beach and Iroquois Point.

The blast wave, he said, could send shrapnel across the region and result in broken windows farther out and casualties and flattened buildings closer in.

Bond said he believes West Loch will only grow in size in the coming years as larger munitions of increasingly powerful explosives and missiles are needed to counter China and Russia.

Asked to comment on concerns from the community, NAVFAC responded with written answers from both the Army and Navy perspectives.

“Safety is always paramount. The preferred alternative in the draft EA maximizes the continued safe storage of ammunition at this site without negatively impacting the neighboring communities. In fact, this and concurrent Navy projects would improve safety by providing state-of-the-art magazine storage and significantly reducing the movement of ordnance on Oahu roadways.”

All new and rebuilt magazines, NAVFAC said, would be within the existing West Loch Annex Explosive Safety Quantity Distance arcs that extend across uninhabited Navy-owned land.

“The safety of community residents is of the utmost importance, and explosive safety is calculated with extreme care and scrutiny,” NAVFAC said.

The ESQD arcs represent a safety buffer zone determined by the design of the magazine and amount of explosives permitted to be stored inside the magazine, according to the response.

The military wouldn’t say what ammunition types and explosive amounts would be stored at West Loch, calling it “sensitive information.”

“However, as stated in the Draft EA, magazine storage capacity would be limited to maintain the current ESQD arc” within Navy property, and residential areas would not be affected, it said.

State Sen. Mike Gabbard asked the Navy for a public hearing, but it told him an environmental assessment was sufficient.

However, the Navy did say the deadline for the 30-day public review and comment period, which originally ended Sept. 8, has been extended to Friday.

In the meantime the draft EA is available online at and at the Ewa, Waipahu and Hawaii State libraries.

The public can submit comments through mail to Code: EV21AS Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific, 258 Makalapa Drive, Suite 100, JBPHH, HI 96860; or by email to NFPAC-Receive@navy.mil.

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