As the Marine Corps moves forward with an ambitious restructuring of its entire force and repositioning of forces around the Pacific, military leaders are scouting locations in the Ewa Plains and other areas in West Oahu for new training grounds and potential housing for troops and their families.
But the search comes at a time when residents of some communities have been rethinking their relationship with the military after a series of changes to existing facilities and proposed new projects. Residents, state officials and lawmakers have increasingly complained about a lack of transparency and public engagement when it comes to military projects on the Westside.
“By the time we find out about it they’ve got their minds made up already,” said Mike Plowman, a Navy veteran and Ewa Beach resident who grew up in the community. “Our input feels worthless.”
About 2,700 new Marines and their families are expected to come to Hawaii from Okinawa by 2030, adding to the 8,000 already here. The Marines will also be getting new ballistic missiles, drones, warships and other systems as they reorganize the force to focus on potential island or coastal confrontations with Chinese or Russian troops.
But there have been concerns about whether the Marine Corps has enough space or the right facilities on Oahu for the new troops and equipment, with reports from both the Government Accountability Office and the Marine Corps itself expressing doubts.
“The Marine Corps, as part of a larger DoD effort, is currently exploring multiple options to determine the best locations to train and house the future force required in Hawaii,” Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Eric Abrams said in an email. “We are currently pending the results of a land use study and a range and training area requirement study, which will drive facility requirements.”
The National Environmental Policy Act requires government agencies to consider the environmental impacts of proposed actions before construction begins, but considerable planning often goes into projects beforehand.
“Once requirements for any proposed action have been developed, the NEPA process will commence and the public will have an opportunity to review and comment on any installation NEPA reviews,” Abrams said.
On Sept. 13, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that the Marine Corps was focused on locations in West Oahu, including parts of what was once Naval Air Station Barbers Point, a since shuttered base on the Ewa Plains.
The Marines have a history there, once operating Marine Corps Air Station Ewa. It was one of the several locations on Oahu struck by Japanese forces on Dec. 7, 1941, as part of the larger air attack on Pearl Harbor. The base was later absorbed into the Barbers Point facility, which became a Cold War aviation hub.
At the time the Ewa Plain was largely rural, allowing the military to operate unfettered. But since the base closed in 1999, the communities of Ewa Beach, Kalaeloa and Kapolei have emerged as growing residential centers, leading to friction over residential, commercial and military development issues.
Ewa Neighborhood Board vice chair Alex Gaos said that military community liaisons have not mentioned anything about location scouting on the Westside at meetings or sent out any notices as far as he knows.
“A new base or just housing in Ewa will add to the traffic problems near and on H1,” said Ewa Beach resident Karen Luke. “The Horton development and UH-West is ahead of any base or residential development in Barbers Point and will further increase the traffic, so you will see a lot of pushback from the residents in the west.”
Hawaii State Sen. Mike Gabbard, who represents Kapolei and other parts of the Ewa Plain, also said he was unaware of the potential for new facilities in his district. Senate Minority Leader Kurt Fevella, who represents Ewa Beach, has accused the military of planning projects without adequately engaging the public. Fevella did not respond to requests for comment.
“My hope is that any potential training ranges or military housing will be thoroughly vetted at community meetings, neighborhood board meetings, church meetings, Kapolei Chamber of Commerce, etc.,” Gabbard said in an email. “It’s super important to give the opportunity to the community to weigh in.”
Plowman, who grew up in a Navy family, recalled the Ewa of his youth as a working-class community of local agricultural workers and military families. Despite friction between military and local families elsewhere on Oahu, he said he always felt at home in Ewa — it was where he learned to surf.
But relations between the military and the historically troop friendly community have soured in recent years after a series of spats over other projects.
The Puuloa Range Training Facility at Ewa Beach has been in operation for over a century and most residents have become accustomed to the sound of gunfire, but tensions rose in 2017 after the military installed a loudspeaker to shout instructions to troops.
Residents began complaining that the noise was echoing down to the beach community starting at 6 a.m., and many said their calls to the military were ignored.
The military also has drawn criticism over a proposed “shoreline stabilization project,” which would involve driving a “sheet-pile” retaining wall into the beach to protect the range from coastal erosion.
Plowman has been a leading opponent of the project after he used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain an environmental assessment done by the Marines in 2015. The assessment warned that while the wall might protect the facility from erosion it would “do nothing to reduce erosion of the beach” and that “on sandy shorelines suffering long-term beach erosion, [these methods] will likely result in the loss of the sand beach.”
Plowman collected 800 signatures on a petition asking for the Marine Corps to produce a formal Environmental Impact Statement. In March, Gabbard also introduced a nonbinding resolution requesting that the Marine Corps produce an EIS for the project.
However, under federal law, the military can exempt itself from regular environmental requirements in some cases. Since the range is on federal land, Hawaii officials have no power over the project.
“The Puuloa Range goes against all commonsense in a primarily residential neighborhood,” said Luke. The Ewa Beach resident complained that the military’s handling of the project and concerns over the impact of the Navy’s Red Hill facility are “more examples of poor environmental management and how tone-deaf the military is to residents in the Pacific.”
Last year, public pressure forced the Army and Navy to extend the comment window on another Westside project — a new munitions depot at the Navy’s West Loch Annex. The plan is to move all of the Army munitions from aging facilities near Waianae.
The West Loch was the scene of an infamous munitions handling mishap that caused a mass of explosions and fires that destroyed ships and killed hundreds of soldiers during World War II. The Navy covered up the disaster in the press, only acknowledging the scale of it in the 1960s.
Since then, major residential developments have sprung up nearby. The proximity of the future facility storing heavy munitions upset many residents, as did what some considered a lack of transparency about the plans.
“I cannot believe a major munitions facility will be built within a few thousand feet of our residences,” said Luke. “Even a small accident will impact us. Any major munitions facility should be in their lap, not ours.”
Military officials have defended their outreach efforts, pointing out that they put out informational notices on the West Loch project. But Hawaii officials have been deeply critical.
“The residents and public have the right to know what is happening in their immediate area,” Fevella wrote in a letter to military officials last year. “Information regarding this should not be placed in obscure legal notice sections in publications where residents of our affected communities … would never read or see (them).”
The latest iteration of Congress’s defense spending bill includes $51 million for the West Loch storage facility. It also includes several provisions authored by Hawaii Rep. Ed Case asking the military to engage more with the public.
The bill calls on the military to produce a report on its coordination of relations with state and local government entities in Hawaii and directs the Pentagon to examine current community outreach efforts and propose ways to improve community outreach and transparency in the islands.
The bill also would require the military to update its Hawaii Master Land Use Plan every five years until 2045 and calls on the Marine Corps to provide a report identifying its infrastructure needs to support its realignment in the Pacific.
Abrams said the Marines’ current land use study is a “refresh” of work done in a 2013 assessment of military-controlled land for the long-planned relocation of troops from Okinawa as part of an agreement with Japan.
“During the NEPA process, we will seek and consider public input of the proposed action in accordance with NEPA and implementing Department of the Navy and Marine Corps directives,” Abrams said.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.