Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Oahu Burial Council Won't Approve Rail Pact

Burial council won't sign rail pact
Honolulu Advertiser
By Sean Hao

A government panel charged with protecting Native Hawaiian burials is opposing plans to run Honolulu's $5.5 billion rail line through Kakaako via Halekauwila Street.

The Oahu Island Burial Council has decided not to join other parties — including the National Parks Service and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation — in signing an agreement on mitigating the rail project's impacts on historical, cultural and archaeological resources. The organizations are scheduled to sign the agreement tomorrow.

The burial council decision is largely symbolic and isn't expected to stop or delay the 20-mile elevated commuter train project, scheduled to break ground in December. But it does indicate the concern Native Hawaiians and others have that the rail project's current route will encounter problems with old burial sites.

"When it comes to the issue that we're concerned with, you picked one of the worst possible alignments," burial council member Kehau Abad told transit officials during a meeting last week.

Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann wrote to the burial council on Oct. 13 urging the group to concur with the agreement. The city worked with the council for months to address concerns about the project's potential impact on traditional Hawaiian burials, which are generally unmarked graves.

However, the administration was unwilling to alter the route from going through an area that sits on a band of sandy deposits that's expected to contain high concentrations of burials, according to the council. That route was chosen by the Honolulu City Council in early 2007 based on a study of various transit alternatives conducted a year earlier.

Some federal officials also have opposed a Halekauwila Street route, which passes the Prince Kuhio Federal Building, because of security concerns.

Burial council members said they should have been consulted and an archaeological inventory survey should have been conducted before selection of a route through Kakaako. The current route will almost certainly encounter buried human remains, which could delay the project and drive up costs, Abad said during last Wednesday's meeting.

"What we're concerned about is the public is going to turn around and point to us as the cause of those increases in costs (and) as the cause of delays," she said. "Beyond just us, they're going to turn to the whole Hawaiian community and say it's those Hawaiians who are increasing the costs of this project for everyone. It is the Hawaiians who are holding up progress .

"We're going to get blamed for something that we knew well in advance would have been coming, but nobody asked us," Abad said.

mauka route urged
The burial council is appointed by the governor and works to protect Hawaiian burial sites. The council maintains that a more mauka route for the rail line, along King or Beretania streets, would avoid subsurface sandy deposits likely to contain burials.

City officials said they considered but discounted alternatives because other routes wouldn't generate enough ridership or would have greater impacts on adjoining properties.

The issue of how to deal with the discovery of iwi, or burial remains, arose at the Kakaako Walmart and Ward Villages projects and likely could recur if the city proceeds with plans to build a 20-mile rapid transit system linking East Kapolei to Ala Moana.

According to the city's 2006 study, there is a high potential of encountering Native Hawaiian burials and other archaeological artifacts once construction enters urban Honolulu. Other portions of the route along Farrington and Kamehameha highways and the airport have a medium potential of encountering such sites.

In an effort to alleviate council concerns, the city agreed to conduct an archaeological inventory survey in the Kakaako area about two years earlier than planned, said Lawrence Spurgeon, supervising environmental engineer for New York-based project manager Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Such a survey is currently being conducted at the ewa side of the route, which will be built first, and includes tests at about 80 sites. So far no burials have been found.

survey set next year
The current plan is to conduct an archaeological survey for the Middle Street to Ala Moana Center segment next year, Spurgeon told the burial council last week. That will be before a final design is completed for that portion of the route, he said.

"If we have any substantial finds that will really require a redesign or anything of that type, we'll have a fair amount of time to look at what those options are," he said.

The city would consider moving train guideway footings and altering utility relocation plans to avoid iwi. However, it's unlikely that the discovery of human remains in Kakaako will cause the city to alter the route, Spurgeon said.

"From our point of view it's going to be a fairly high threshold to the point where the proposed alternative is essentially abandoned in favor of coming up with another alternative," he said. "The city would go through every design option first to be able to avoid those resources.

"Changing the entire project alignment in some area is a last resort."

The city also maintains that an elevated train will have less impact on human burials than an at-grade train.

"To the extent there are specific locations where you are likely to run into iwi, hopefully you can in fact engineer around it to avoid the situation" with an elevated train, said City Council Chairman Todd Apo.

inadvertent discoveries
According to a study commissioned by Kamehameha Schools and released earlier this year, at-grade and elevated train alternatives affect burials in different ways.

"Although at-grade construction results in a continuous disturbance to the ground beneath, throughout the length of the guideway, fortunately disruption can be limited to the first few feet of ground," according to the report by IBI Group in Irvine, Calif. "The aerial guideway design option will avoid constant disturbance along the transit alignment, limiting the disruption to the column foundation areas only."

The city said it is committed to working with the burial council even though the group won't sign the agreement.

"We need to ensure that any of those disturbances are eliminated or at a minium minimized," Apo said.

Despite those reassurances , several burial council members said it would be better for the city to avoid an area that's likely to encounter burials. Recent inadvertent discoveries of human remains in Kakaako include:

• About 42 sets of remains were found at the Keeaumoku Walmart site after construction began in late 2002.

• Separately, about 60 sets of remains were discovered at the site of General Growth's Ward Villages development, mauka of Ward Centre.

• Workers dug up 69 human remains at Kawaiahao Church during construction of a multipurpose center.

In each case building plans were delayed and human burials were removed.

"The council is absolutely right that you should expect to find burials on Halekauwila Street," said Thomas Dye, president for T.S. Dye & Colleagues Archaeologists. "There are burials all over Kakaako. If you go further mauka, you get off the sand, which is a good thing if you're trying to miss burials."

'something's got to give'
If the transit project encounters additional burials, there will be considerable pressure to move human remains rather than alter the train's route, burial council member Abad said.

"There's a critical difference between avoidance and mitigation," Abad said. "It's hard for me to wrap my mind around the solution that's going to allow for us to have our kupuna handled in a way that maintains the integrity of their sacred burial spots and for this project to go forward — all in that same corridor.

"Something's got to give. What we all know is ... that which gives is our concerns, our values (and) what we hold dear. That's what everybody asks us to give," Abad said.

Reach Sean Hao at

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