The U.S. Marine Corps says it won’t further study the environmental implications of installing a 1,500-foot steel barrier on a section of Ewa Beach – a move that may temporarily protect its shooting range from erosion but that threatens the public beach on either side of it.

The project involves driving a “sheet pile” retaining wall 20 feet into the bedrock that would act as a bulkhead should the beach in front of the Puuloa Range Training Facility disappear.

Marine officials say there will be no significant impact, so an in-depth review of potential consequences is unnecessary.

But Hawaii’s top official for coastal land management disagrees.

“This represents another death knell to our beaches,” said Sam Lemmo, administrator of the Hawaii Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands. “Their action is to avoid inconvenience at the expense of the beach ecosystem.”

Ewa Beach resident Michael Plowman has been collecting signatures to support an environmental impact statement for a Marine Corps erosion project. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2019

Neighbors are also outraged that the military is refusing to more deeply consider how hardening the shoreline for its own benefit could doom the area’s shoreline, which Lemmo says is currently relatively healthy.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen down here,” said Michael Plowman, a resident who has collected nearly 800 signatures urging the neighborhood board to demand an environmental impact statement. “That needs to be studied.”

But the Marines say they aren’t required to study it. And they’re right.

Environmental Protection Laws Differ For Federal Agencies

The military essentially answers to itself on these types of projects, said Denise Antolini, a prominent environmental attorney. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Corps follows its own regulations and can give itself a pass on an EIS, or environmental impact statement.

The federal agencies make their own determination,” she said. 

Agencies often need to complete an environmental assessment, a less-detailed analysis than an environmental impact statement. That’s when officials answer the question: Are the impacts of the project likely to be significant? If the answer is yes, an EIS is needed. If not, then the project can move forward.

 “Just because there are impacts doesn’t mean they’re significant,” Antolini said. 

In this case, the Marine Corps found its erosion project would have no significant impact on air quality, water resources, geological resources, cultural resources, biological resources, recreational resources, land use, visual resources, noise, infrastructure, public health and safety, and hazardous materials and waste.

The Marines determined the project would not have disproportionate environmental health and safety effects on children or cause disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority or low-income populations.

The military also said that this project, when considered alongside other projects in the vicinity, would not cause a significant cumulative impact.

UH Law school Associate Dean Denise Antolini during press conference. Environmental law. 26 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Denise Antolini, an environmental lawyer, said environmental impact statements are not legally required in many cases. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Green turtles are likely to be affected, the Marines found, but not adversely, according to an appendix to the environmental assessment. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concurred with that finding and said if “avoidance and minimization measures” are followed, the turtles should be fine.

“Green sea turtles have been documented to nest and may bask on the shoreline within the vicinity of the proposed project area,” wrote Aaron Nadig, an island team manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a letter to the Marine Corps. “Because effects from the action are discountable, the proposed project is not likely to adversely affect green sea turtles.”

Asked multiple times for an interview for this story, Marine Capt. Rob Martins said an interview was “not possible.” He did not respond to questions sent by email but offered a statement. 

“Projects like the Pu’uloa Shoreline Stabilization are an example of how we optimize our training and ensure our force’s readiness while still caring for the environment,” he said. “The Pu’uloa training facility has been around since roughly 1915, and in the years since, we’ve enjoyed the support of the local community.”

But Lemmo said the Marines’ environmental assessment is “clearly inadequate” for this type of project.

“What’s going to happen is if they build this thing, it’s going to erode out, you’re going to have flanking,” he said, referring to beach loss. “And then they’re going to come in later and armor that too.”

It’s a situation Lemmo said he has watched happen again and again in Hawaii.

“We build too close to the ocean, and then we have erosion and then we choose to build a seawall, and that then destroys the sandy beaches,” he said. “We’ve already lost a tremendous amount of beaches on the island and the state because of poor decisions being made about how to approach or manage coastal zones.”

‘Speaking Up For The Land’

Authority for accepting or rejecting the Marine Corps determination lies with the military hierarchy itself, Antolini said.

“Nobody on the outside has any control over that,” she said. “The only other oversight would be if somebody in the Department of Defense internally wanted to upset that apple cart. It would have to be some high ranking (National Environmental Policy Act) reviewer saying: ‘No you’re not doing that right.’”

The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, where Lemmo’s office is located, has no power to stop the Marine Corps project or demand an EIS.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has no oversight role, said spokeswoman Margot Perez-Sullivan. 

Neighbors of the project do have the option of filing a lawsuit in federal court, Antolini said. There are thousands of such cases, she said, and plaintiffs often succeed in obtaining a court order that an EIS be done.

When an EIS has been done but was flawed, a judge can order another one, but those cases are won less often, Antolini said.

Ultimately, Antolini said the Marine Corps decision not to pursue an EIS is not unusual.

“If you built a pyramid out of all the EAs and EISs done by federal agencies in Hawaii, only the top maybe 15% would be EISs,” she said, noting that it saves the government time and money. “The vast majority of environmental reviews done by federal agencies do stop at that level. It’s not uncommon.”

Beyond the Marine Corps determination, Plowman is further frustrated with what he thinks is too little effort on the part of the military to communicate its plans with neighbors. Notice of the project has twice been buried in the legal notices of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Labor Day weekends in 2016 and this year, Plowman said. He felt it showed a less than sincere effort to engage with the community.

“Who looks at that?” Plowman asked.

The Marine Corps environmental assessment says it published notices in the newspaper on those dates to seek public comment in addition to posting reports on its own website. Plowman only learned of the project when he stumbled upon those online reports by accident, he said.

Resident Janie Gueso said she worries about the cumulative effects the Marine Corps project will have when combined with the airport’s reef runway. She put up a copy of Plowman’s petition in her shop, Silva’s Grocery & Liquor.

“Nobody is speaking up for the land,” she said. “Let’s do our due diligence and make sure we’re not causing a future problem in trying to create a solution for a current problem.”

Puuloa Beach Park has been used for years as a community space for baby luaus and other gatherings, Plowman said, and he worries about its future.

“It’s a big, big deal to me,” he said. “We want to protect it, for the people, for the wildlife.”

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author