This story was originally published by ProPublica.
For the better part of two years, Liliu Ross had lived in a one-room tin-roofed shack in the rural outer reaches of Hawaii’s Big Island. It had no running water and no electricity. But it provided shelter for Ross as she raised sheep and grew crops on land that her Native Hawaiian ancestors once called home. From the open fields and gentle slopes of her five-acre farm lot, she marveled at the stunning views of nearby Mauna Kea, one of the world’s tallest island mountains. Still, there were challenges to living under such conditions. At night she read by candlelight, and during the day she bathed outside with water she warmed in a pot over a fire.
So, in 2014, Ross secured a loan under a special program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help Native Hawaiians build or purchase homes on Native lands. An architect created drawings for a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house, complete with energy-efficient appliances and a covered lanai. And she even picked the location for the new home.
Within months, though, her plan collapsed. Ross learned in a phone call from her builder that HUD had imposed a freeze on federal housing funds throughout the region. As it turned out, her property had been part of the Waikoloa Maneuver Area, a 185,000-acre site that was used by the U.S. military for live-fire training in the 1940s. Troops had fired an unknown number of grenades, mortars and other munitions that failed to explode, and many of the potentially deadly weapons remained, hidden beneath years of soil and vegetation buildup. Federal authorities wanted to ensure the land was safe to use.
But the funding freeze had sweeping consequences. Other prospective borrowers on Native lands soon found they could no longer obtain government-insured mortgages, the only type available on such properties. The freeze also meant that local and state governments could not tap the main sources of federal funding to develop affordable housing in the region — a critical need in a state with one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation. The action effectively thwarted a century-old promise by the federal government to return Native Hawaiians to their ancestral lands.
Money would flow again, HUD decided, after the military removed any unexploded ordnance, or UXO, and state regulators vouched for the land’s safety.
Eight years later, though, Ross is still waiting. The now-64-year-old farmer continues to live in the same shack. She is one of hundreds of Native Hawaiians who are unable to secure housing on lands that the government set aside for them in a trust. Many have already waited years — and sometimes decades — for the opportunity to build homes, farms and ranches.
“People are getting old, people are dying,” said Mary Maxine Kahaulelio, a prominent Native Hawaiian activist who lives near the UXO zone. “This is another form of delay for Hawaiians.”
No one can say for sure when relief will arrive. In one area, the state initially projected that the construction of 400-plus homes would be completed by next year. It paved streets, poured sidewalks, erected street lights and installed fire hydrants and road signs. But in 2015 it halted construction amid the federal funding freeze; not a single home has been built. Today, weeds and other vegetation are slowly overtaking the empty lots.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is leading the remediation effort, has been plagued by shoddy work and multiple regulatory disputes, according to an investigation by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica. In one case, after state regulators raised concerns, the Corps rebid a contract to assess the UXO risk on the largest Native parcel in the region, prolonging a process that is years behind schedule.
The previously unreported details, laid bare in interviews and hundreds of pages of documents obtained through public records requests, provide further evidence of how government agencies have bungled the timely return of Native Hawaiians to their ancestral lands. The Star-Advertiser and ProPublica reported in 2020 and 2021 how the state was largely bypassing low-income and homeless Hawaiians because of the pricey homes it developed and how the federal government effectively circumvented a reparations law, depriving the program of prime properties suitable for housing. Today, more than 28,000 beneficiaries — the term for people who are at least 50% Hawaiian — are currently waiting for lots statewide, including nearly 6,000 seeking housing on the Big Island.
For its part, Army Corps officials said they are committed to clearing the Native lands as soon as possible. “Keep in mind we’re trying to help,” said Loren Zulick, who until recently served as the Corps’ program manager for Waikoloa, in an interview. But, he added, “our driving factor is to clean up contamination and protect human health and the environment.” In a written response to the news organizations’ findings, the Corps said it is “committed to getting the remediation done right to ensure these areas are safe” and that every acre that goes through the process “is a success toward restoration of lands.”
HUD also defended its Waikoloa policy, saying in a statement that it was developed “to ensure the safety of all occupants of HUD housing, including Native Hawaiians.”
Local leaders, however, say the government needs to move faster to fulfill its obligations to Hawaii’s indigenous people.
“It’s just common sense, common courtesy, basic values everyone is taught as children: If you break it, fix it,” said Robin Danner, chair of the Sovereign Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations, the largest beneficiary group in the state. “We have the most powerful military on the planet. It’s just unacceptable that the UXO debacle is still ongoing, truly hurting families, keeping them from using our land.”
A Deadly History
After World War II broke out, the U.S. used large swaths of undeveloped land in the Waikoloa region for so-called live-fire exercises, in which Marines trained in battle-like conditions with artillery shells, rockets, grenades, tank rounds and other arms. It was one of several places in Hawaii that the military used for such training. Officials estimated that about 10% of the munitions failed to detonate during the Waikoloa maneuvers, so before leaving in 1946, the military conducted a cleanup operation. Technicians methodically walked the grounds looking for unexploded arms and debris, which were then destroyed or hauled away.
But over the years, there have been a handful of accidents. In 1954, two ranch workers were killed and three colleagues injured when an old mortar shell exploded near them. The accident prompted another round of cleanup, but that effort failed to catch many remaining munitions too: In 1983, two more people, soldiers involved in a military exercise, were injured when an old shell exploded.
Despite the risks, development marched forward throughout the region. The UXO status of the lands was hazy in those early decades, before the Corps took on a formal role. Many property owners assumed that the prior cleanups made their land safe to develop, and those who were unsure hired UXO experts to guide construction. Coastal resorts, shopping centers, residential subdivisions, parks and other developments gradually popped up.
Among the developers was the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which manages nearly 12,000 acres within the UXO zone as part of the land trust. It was set up in 1921 by Congress to help a people then headed toward extinction. The state took over management in 1959 as a condition of statehood. Under the program, anyone who is at least 50% Native Hawaiian is entitled to lease land for $1 a year and either build or buy a home on it. Over the years, scores of beneficiaries did so within Waikoloa. Both the state and federal governments, as overseers of the trust, are legally bound to ensure the program’s success.
Government remediation efforts picked up again in the 1990s, after federal legislation resulted in the Army Corps being given responsibility for clearing former defense sites such as Waikoloa. And building continued without controversy until 2014, when a Native Hawaiian beneficiary in Puukapu, the same community where Ross lives, applied for a home loan to renovate his residence, as others had before him. This time, though, the lender rejected his application, largely because an appraiser noted that the property was in a UXO zone.
The loan denial alarmed local HUD officials, whose agency had provided millions of dollars each year to DHHL for lot development and housing assistance, including loans to eligible Hawaiians to purchase or build homes on trust land. Federal officials told the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica that they were previously unaware of the unexploded ordnance issue, which local and state environmental reviews had not adequately addressed. DHHL said it conducted such a review before starting construction on a nearby subdivision in 2012, but that it didn’t uncover any UXO. Nevertheless, once HUD learned of the potential contamination problem in the region, it imposed a freeze on funding and HUD-backed mortgages until safety concerns were addressed.
To comply with the policy, DHHL began putting UXO disclosure provisions in the new land leases it awarded to Native Hawaiian beneficiaries. The designation prevented those leaseholders from obtaining government-insured mortgages until the UXO problem in their specific community was resolved. In fact, some lenders had already stopped lending on Native lands in the Waikoloa area.
Regulators Raise Red Flags
Hundreds of Native Hawaiians looked to the Army Corps to step up its work so the freeze could be lifted. Months, however, turned into years. “My balloon is deflated,” said Leolani Kini, 65, whose plans to build a home on the Big Island are on hold. “It’s heartbreaking for me every day.”
Kini and other Hawaiians were counting on the Army Corps to review two key areas.
One was Puukapu, the mostly rural area where Ross lives and Kini wants to move. It’s the largest trust parcel in the UXO zone and includes nearly 450 lots leased by beneficiaries. The other area was Lalamilo, the location of the unfinished 400-home subdivision.
Given the limitations of technology and other factors, all parties acknowledge, it’s impossible to remove all munitions from the UXO zone. Hawaii’s rugged terrain and high iron levels, for instance, interfere with the digital equipment used to search for buried bombs. Instead, the cleanup goal is to reduce the UXO risk to “negligible.” But over the past several years, state health department documents reveal its regulators have raised significant questions about how the Corps performed its assessments in both areas.
In Puukapu, the department issued a scathing response to an initial Corps report, saying “there appears to be intentional efforts to omit and obscure relevant data.” Regulators also objected to the Corps’ finding in the 2018 report that the UXO risk was acceptable and no further action was needed.
“They basically were saying, ‘Hey, we’re done,’” said Sven Lindstrom, the health department regulator who oversees the Corps’ remediation work. “And we were like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. No, we need to talk about this more. You need to allay our concerns that there might still be hundreds of munitions items at this site.’”
The Corps took two years to respond, and after that it had to hire another contractor to help complete the report, which still isn’t finished.
In Lalamilo, regulators questioned the effectiveness of new technology the Corps is using to detect munitions, as well as the reliability of its past sweeps of the area. The skepticism was driven by a series of discoveries by workers in other parts of the UXO zone that the federal agency had previously designated as clear. In 2018, for example, they discovered large fragments on the ground and a foot-long projectile just steps away from a low-income apartment complex. The old shell, which still had the potential to explode, was buried just three inches below the surface.
To allay concerns, the Corps analyzed nine past sweeps of the area that includes Lalamilo. The results, however, were far from reassuring. As it did in Puukapu, the agency backed away from its initial assessment, telling the state it had low confidence in the effectiveness of its prior work. The Corps is now doing a new, more comprehensive sweep of Lalamilo, using state-of-the-art equipment, and is discussing the data with regulators as the work progresses. The technology dispute, however, remains unresolved.
Meanwhile, Native Hawaiian beneficiaries regularly drive by the subdivision site, just off the main road into Waimea. About a dozen told the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica that they often wonder when the project will get back on track. The site’s 2012 groundbreaking sign, which is still standing, touts the name of Gov. Neil Abercrombie. He left office eight years ago.
In response to questions from the news organizations, the Corps acknowledged that the remediation process is time-consuming. But the agency won’t sacrifice quality for speed, according to Lt. Col. Ryan Pevey, who heads the Corps’ Hawaii operations. “At the end of the day, it’s about the safety of the people of Hawaii and the environment,” he said in an interview. The Corps said it is highly confident that the Puukapu assessment, once completed, will allay the state’s concerns and show that hundreds of UXO will not be left in the ground.
The trust lands have been getting special attention in recent years, officials added. “It is a priority for us to try to help the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands with their needs for people who are trying to get loans on their properties,” said Zulick, the former Waikoloa program manager.
The Corps said Lalamilo is currently ranked No. 1 among its Waikoloa priorities and Puukapu is third, designations that direct resources to expedite the UXO work. Just a few years ago Puukapu was No. 22 — a reflection of the fact that the area had not been used as intensively for live-fire training as other sectors, according to the Corps. Some beneficiaries believe no remedy is needed in Puukapu. They say people have worked the land there for decades without incident, and many express frustration that the Corps is taking so long to assess a site they believe is safe.
William J. Aila Jr., who oversees DHHL and the 203,000-acre land trust, reflected on the balance that must be struck to successfully resolve the UXO problem. “Obviously, we would like to see this effort proceed faster, but we understand the Army Corps has a process, and we want them to do a thorough job,” Aila said in a statement.
Native Hawaiians Pay the Price
Native Hawaiians are paying the price for the delays — sometimes, quite literally.
Shirley Gambill-De Rego, a Big Island mortgage manager, recalled the case of a man who, after learning of the UXO delay, paid a private company $25,000 to sweep his mother’s land in Puukapu so he could get a loan to replace her aging home. Given that his mother was elderly, the man concluded that he couldn’t afford to wait for years for the Army Corps to do its job, said Gambill-De Rego, who ultimately helped the family get financing for construction. The new home was completed about seven years ago. The mother has since died.
Others have also had to dip into their own pockets.
Rocky and Kamala Cashman moved to Puukapu with designs for a new home in 2014. The retirees, who were in their 70s at the time, set up shop in a temporary trailer, expecting to live there for a year at most while workers constructed their new prefabricated home. But just before building began, their bank canceled the loan because it was no longer insurable due to the UXO problem. Other lenders subsequently turned them down as well. As a result, the trailer became their home for the next five years.
The rented camper, which measured 240 square feet, had just enough room for a king-sized bed, a bathroom and a small refrigerator. The couple made meals with a toaster oven, microwave, electric frying pan and rice cooker. While the living situation was cramped, Kamala Cashman said, it was offset, in part, by the natural beauty of their five-acre lot, which featured expansive mountain views. “We made it work,” she said.
The financial cost, though, was significant. On top of renting the trailer, the Cashmans paid to lease two shipping containers to hold their household belongings and a third to store the wood and other materials for their new home. Their total five-year rental tab came to about $60,000.
Then, in 2019, the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, an advocacy organization for Hawaii’s indigenous people, stepped in. The group agreed to lend the Cashmans $300,000 through a program designed to assist Hawaiians unable to get more conventional financing. The council approved the loan even though the UXO assessment in Puukapu was still ongoing.
“I knew if we didn’t step in and help, this family would still be in the trailer,” said Kuhio Lewis, the council’s chief executive officer.
The Cashmans moved into their new home in 2020. The three-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath cedar-and-redwood residence spans about 2,500 square feet of living space — more than 10 times the size of their rented trailer — and features a dome-shaped great room and a wraparound balcony facing Mauna Kea.
“It’s sad that it took five years for us to move into something that should’ve happened in a few months,” said Kamala Cashman, who is now 81.
“That shouldn’t be happening at their age,” added Noe Aiu, Cashman’s daughter.
The HUD freeze is impacting Native Hawaiians in other ways too.
Those who have wanted to sell their homes in the region have had to look for all-cash buyers because of the unavailability of financing. And some have been unable to refinance existing mortgages, which prevented the homeowners from taking advantage of record-low interest rates in 2021. Rates have since rebounded to two-decade highs.
The result, advocates say, has been that Native Hawaiians have been deprived of building financial equity during a period in which Hawaii real estate values have soared. If any other group were denied such an opportunity, government officials would “move mountains to turn that faucet back on,” said Rolina Faagai, vice chair of Hawaiian Lending & Investments, a beneficiary-run organization that helps Hawaiians obtain mortgages on trust lands. “Not for our community. Why is that?
A Plea for Help
Given how long beneficiaries have suffered under the freeze, Native Hawaiians and their advocates are now calling for the Corps and the state’s congressional delegation to expedite remediation.
“They’ve got to prioritize this,” said Lewis, head of the Native Hawaiian advocacy council, citing the state and federal governments’ long-standing legal duty to beneficiaries as overseers of the land trust. “This is a trust obligation to Native Hawaiians, an obligation that is being unfulfilled, unmet.”
The Star-Advertiser and ProPublica reached out to Hawaii’s four members in Congress about the Waikoloa cleanup process. Just two responded: U.S. Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz.
Hirono did not answer the news organizations’ questions but issued a general statement saying more needs to be done to ensure the governments’ trust obligations are fulfilled.
Schatz was more specific. In written responses, he said he would push for more funding to speed up the cleanup effort to help ensure no one waits longer than needed. “It’s a dangerous job that understandably takes time,” he said of the remediation work. “But for beneficiaries, every delay in the process has a real impact.”
In recent years, Congress has approved additional monies for Waikoloa, according to Schatz, who sits on the Senate’s appropriations committee. A decade ago, the project was getting about $10 million annually. This year, the total hit more than $18 million, a record, Schatz said. Much more, however, is needed. The Corps estimates $375 million will be required to finish the job.
Danner, the beneficiary leader, urged DHHL to help supplement the remediation effort. “If the lots were good enough to issue to our families, then they are good enough for DHHL to spend resources to clear the lands for safety,” she said. But the department, which received a record $600 million from the state this year to boost the Native Hawaiian homesteading program, said the federal government is obligated to pick up the tab and should.
For now, Ross continues to wait. Several years ago, she added a second room to her shack and now has running water and a power generator. But she is losing hope that she’ll ever see an actual house.
“There’s a lack of concern for the Hawaiian people,” she said. “So we’ll just continue to be successful on our trust land.”