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Community, lawmakers and Marines clash on use of Puʻuloa Range Training Facility

 U.S. Marine Corps Col. Speros Koumparakis, commanding officer, Marine Corps Base Hawaiʻi, discusses concerns from community members with elected officials during a tour of Puuloa Range Training Facility, Hawaiʻi, April 17, 2023.
U.S. Marine Corps Col. Speros Koumparakis, commanding officer, Marine Corps Base Hawaiʻi, discusses concerns from community members with elected officials during a tour of Puuloa Range Training Facility, Hawaiʻi, April 17, 2023.

Long before houses and schools popped up in the area, the U.S. Marine Corps has utilized the Puʻuloa Range Training Facility in Leeward Oʻahu.

But as the community developed, residents in the neighborhood have complained about noise and potential lead pollution in the surrounding ocean waters.

This session, state lawmakers have either passed, or are in the process of passing, a resolution urging the Marines to relocate the facility.

Lt. Mark McDonough, a spokesperson for the Marine Corps Base Hawaiʻi, said it's the only option to complete known-distance marksmanship training, a hallmark of a Marine's skillset.

"We only have a few, a couple areas, where we can conduct live-fire training, and we only have one place where we do annual rifle qualification, and it's here," McDonough said Monday during a tour of the facility. "If this resource goes away, there's no place to conduct the annual rifle quals for the 7,000 roughly active-duty Marines on Hawaiʻi."

The view of the Puʻuloa Range Training Facility from the western side beach.
Sabrina Bodon
The view of the Puʻuloa Range Training Facility from the western side beach.

Down the street at the county-owned Puʻuloa Beach Park and beyond, residents and visitors can hear the echo of gunshots and loud speakers on and off through the morning, beginning at 7 a.m. Those who are unfamiliar with the facility's placement could mistake it for the rumblings of a nearby illegal firework show.

"In addition to incessant shooting that can literally go from sun-up to sundown, PRTF uses a thunderous loudspeaker to coordinate live-fire drills that is often broadcasting orders well before sunrise," Neighborhood Board member Alex Goas wrote in public testimony.

"Hundreds of residences surround the range, some as close as 50 meters. Imagine being one of those residents and trying to work from home, or care for a young infant, or deal with PTSD, while the equivalent of a fireworks show is going off at your neighbor’s house," Goas continued.

"Myriad of issues"

Mike Plowman, a long-time ʻEwa Beach resident and Navy veteran, said while the noise can be jarring to wake up to, residents have "looked at a myriad of issues" throughout the years.

"We find that the biggest ones are not mitigatable, and that would be the lead, dangers of aircraft flying right by there, and the dangers of bullets exiting this range. There's nothing physically stopping bullets from going in a three-mile circle around here," Plowman said.

Sabrina Bodon
Mike Plowman is a long-time ʻEwa Beach resident and Navy veteran.

Before the reopening of the Koko Head Shooting Complex last week, many other agencies and departments, including police departments and border patrol had to make the trek out to ʻEwa.

Unlike other installations which may have two or more ranges for training and qualifications, Hawaiʻi doesn't. That makes this facility home to several short and long distance ranges, the 1,000-yard known-distance Alpha range being specific for sniper training.

Moving from Puʻuloa to the Marines' Kāneʻohe Bay location isn’t compatible with the training needs of the branch, McDonough said. He noted that a Marine sniper cannot qualify unless they have access to a known-distance range.

"The way we do our training is stepping stones, right? You build up to the more advanced skill sets, you need a range like this (with known distances), that's such a controlled environment," McDonough said.

Training at Ulupaʻu Crater is more dynamic, involving maneuvering with live ammunition, he explained. "If we do annual rifle qualification for 7,000 personnel, that’s all that range would be used for."

The Foxtrot range

After concerns of erosion, the Marines began the process of moving the short-distance Foxtrot range about 40 meters mauka this February, with plans to move others farther inland.

Typically, after a certain number of rounds get shot into the berms, they get sifted of lead and copper. During this routine recycling process, instead of returning the soil, it sits tarped in the middle of the range. Natural vegetation will be added from the beachfront to the new site of the Foxtrot range when the time comes.

Sabrina Bodon
Tarped soil from the Foxtrot berm was collected earlier this year. The Marines are in the process of moving this short-distance range inland.

In 2022, the Surfrider Foundation detected high levels of lead in soil samples taken near the facility. According to the report, they collected the samples, from a spot off the berm touching the beach, which showed that some samples were 17 times higher than the accepted levels for industrial areas.

"It's just part of the reality of the nature of impact; berms are meant to catch lead, so they're going to have lead in them," McDonough said. "But for us, what we need to ensure is that the berm stays. If the berm stays, the lead stays."

In written testimony refuting the study, Marine Col. Speros Koumparakis, commander of Marine Corps Base Hawaiʻi, said the legal limit is only "in proximity to human habitation."

"This does not apply to lead inside a federal shooting range facility. The singular study being referenced cited soil samples taken from the impact berms located on the facility, not in the area surrounding PRTF," Koumparakis wrote.

ʻEwa Beach resident Liam Chinn said the study cannot be discounted, and mitigation efforts, sound or movement wise, are not enough.

"We know that having a shooting range that's producing toxic levels of lead right next to a park and right next to homes, on its face, is just incompatible. It cannot be fixed," Chinn said. "All the things the Marines are putting forward now sound dampening, moving the berms back a few feet — or I should say 10% of the berms — that's a non-solution."

House and Senate resolutions

The state House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution urging the Marines to move the live-fire range last week. Yesterday, the Senate’s Committee on Public Safety and Intergovernmental and Military Affairs passed it out of its committee.

Senators on Monday were critical of the Marines' use of the facility and reasons for why the site is so close to the shoreline and residential neighbors.

Sen. Kurt Fevella, who represents the ʻEwa area, said this has been an issue since he was on the neighborhood board 20 years ago.

"As long as I get breath in my lungs, and I’m the senator of ʻEwa Beach, this will come up all the time," Fevella said.

The full Senate will vote on this resolution this week, as the session comes to a close.

Sabrina Bodon is Hawaiʻi Public Radio's government reporter. Contact her at sbodon@hawaiipublicradio.org or 808-792-8252.
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