Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz is asking the U.S. Marine Corps to reconsider its plans to install a metal retaining wall on Ewa Beach after residents and Hawaii’s top coastal management official expressed alarm that the project would protect the military’s shooting range but threaten the community beaches around it.

While the Marine Corps conducted an environmental assessment, it declined to pursue a more in-depth environmental impact statement on its proposal to drive 1,500 feet of “sheet pile” into the bedrock makai of the Puuloa Range Training facility.

Schatz said Tuesday that’s a mistake.

“It is incumbent that the Marine Corps explore long-term resilience benefits for the Pu‘uloa Range Training Facility that avoid unnecessary environmental impacts on Hawai‘i’s beaches and the residents of Ewa Beach on the island of Oahu,” Schatz wrote in a letter to the Marines Corps Commandant, Gen. David Berger.

Senator Brian Schatz Democrats Unity Breakfast 2018.
Sen. Brian Schatz is calling on the Marine Corps to reconsider its options. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Marine Corps did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Schatz’s letter comes one day after Civil Beat published a story outlining the concerns of hundreds of Ewa residents who have signed petitions asking for an EIS and the warning of Sam Lemmo, administrator of the Hawaii Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands.

Lemmo last week characterized the project as “another death knell to our beaches.”

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Corps follows its own regulations and can give itself a pass on an EIS if it determines a project will have “no significant impact” on the environment.

In this case, the Marine Corps found its plans “will not significantly impact the quality of the human or natural environment or generate significant controversy.”

Schatz wants the military to look again.

The senator wrote that he recognizes the Marine Corps’ need to protect its training facility from erosion that could be exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. But he noted that projects that harden shorelines are known to have “unintended consequences on the marine ecosystem and erosion on downstream beaches.”

The Marine Corps should revisit its alternatives, Schatz said. He encouraged officials to design a project that “draws on natural and nature-based features, consistent with existing engineering best practices for coastal zone management and beach erosion.”

Ewa Beach resident Michael Plowman has been collecting signatures from neighbors who support an EIS. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2019

Schatz suggested developing artificial reefs to reduce the effect that waves have on the shore’s erosion or “engineering coastal landscapes with wetlands, maritime forests, and levees to reduce long-term erosion and flood risks while protecting wildlife habitats for the benefits of the local community.”

“These types of engineering best practices are exemplary of the approach (the Department of Defense) should take to resiliency whenever feasible, as they promote the resilience and environmental goals that it shares with the people of Hawai‘i,” Schatz wrote.

Michael Plowman, an Ewa Beach resident who has been advocating for a Marine Corps EIS,  said he was “elated” to have Schatz’s support.

“All of the people who have put effort into trying to bring attention to this, I think they’re going to be very happy to see the proper attention is being taken and this thing doesn’t get steamrolled because it’s such a bad idea,” he said.

In a statement on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Ed Case said he agreed with Schatz that the Marine Corps should fully evaluate the long-term consequences of its proposal and consider alternatives.

“I understand the importance of Puuloa Range to our military and support its continuation and improvement, but it makes sense to hit pause and fully answer these questions before deciding how best to do so without unintended consequences,” Case said.

The letter from Schatz, a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, may carry more weight than a neighbor’s complaint, but it doesn’t legally require the Marine Corps to do anything.

The military essentially answers to itself on these types of projects, according to Denise Antolini, a prominent environmental attorney.

The Department of Defense could voluntarily decide to do an EIS to appease its critics. Or a community group could sue and obtain a court order that an EIS be done, Antolini said.

The Marine Corps declined multiple interview requests with Civil Beat last week and did not respond to email questions. In his letter, Schatz listed two questions of his own:

  1. Why did the Marine Corps choose not to consider a natural or nature-based project as part of an analysis of alternatives?
  2. What engineering best practices did the Marine Corps rely on to inform its development of the Pu‘uloa Range Training Facility coastal erosion project?

Schatz requested that the Marine Corps respond by Dec. 6.

You can read his full letter here.

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