High levels of lead were detected in soil samples taken near the military’s Puuloa Range Training Facility in Ewa Beach earlier this year, some with up to 17 times the state safety standard for an industrial area, the Surfrider Foundation said Monday. 

The samples were taken on the makai side of the facility, which is on the edge of an eroding beach. The environmental advocacy nonprofit, which collected the samples and had them tested in a local lab, expressed concern that the contamination could migrate into the reef ecosystem or to highly used public areas. 

Puuloa Range Training Facility located in Ewa Beach.
The Puuloa Range Training Facility is located in Ewa Beach. Its property line ends where the sand begins. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“Families either live in or visit these areas each day and many children may be exposed to severely dangerous levels of contamination,” Keili McEvilly, Surfrider’s Oahu chapter coordinator, wrote in a letter to the Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command.

Children who are exposed to lead-contaminated soil, either by swallowing it or breathing in particles, can experience negative health impacts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The heavy metal can damage the brain and nervous system, slow growth and development, trigger learning and behavioral problems and create challenges with hearing and speech, the CDC says.

The Surfrider Foundation detected the presence of lead while investigating how a planned sea wall would impact the shoreline, McEvilly said. Foundation volunteers collected soil samples around the facility in two batches and submitted them to the Hawaii Analytical Laboratory. In the first batch of eight samples, three were above the state’s safety threshold for a residential area. In the second batch of 16 samples, 10 were above that limit, according to the Surfrider’s report. 

Surfrider is asking the Navy to clean up the alleged contamination, take samples from the nearby soil and reef to monitor contamination and publicly publish the results. In the long term, the foundation requests that the Navy conduct soil remediation, incorporate regular testing into its program and relocate its shooting berm – the raised barrier used behind shooting targets – away from the coastal environment.

The Marine Corps, which manages the Puuloa facility, expressed doubt about the foundation’s findings.

The service conducts a Range Environmental Vulnerability Assessment every five years, in part to determine if there has been a release of “munitions constituents,” Marine Corps Lt. Mark McDonough said in a statement. That analysis looks for releases from small arms ammunition, he said. 

The last assessment was conducted in November 2020 and found no evidence of off-range munitions constituents that presented a risk to human health or the environment, McDonough said.

The beach makai of the Puuloa Rifle Training Range at Ewa Beach has posted warning signs. Kevin Knodell/Civil Beat/2020

According to McDonough, the Marine Corp Base conducts periodic cleaning operations at Puuloa to remove and recycle lead from its impact berms.

“These operations enable (Marine Corps Base Hawaii) to manage and minimize the lead present in our berms and to ensure erosion mitigation measures, such as maintaining vegetation on the berms, continue to be effective,” he said.

McDonough said the Marines haven’t received the data Surfrider referenced in its report but it would be important to understand where samples were taken and how lead could impact the environment.

Puuloa has been an active range since 1915, so it’s likely that samples taken on the berms themselves would contain lead. However, McDonough said the presence of lead material on the berms does not necessarily prove that it has migrated to other areas.

He also noted that the locations where Surfrider says samples were taken are “off-limits to the public given the area’s proximity to an active live-fire range.”

“(Marine Corps Base Hawaii) is always open to partnering with organizations in the community to ensure our environmental protection and stewardship practices are effective and to identify problems when they arise,” he said.

Hawaii Department of Health spokeswoman Katie Arita-Chang called the Surfrider report concerning and said additional testing is needed to understand the possible risks. 

“In this case, we are especially concerned by the possibility that children could inadvertently consume small lead fragments from bullets or other lead-based ammunition,” she said in a statement.

DOH has reached out to Surfrider for more information about its testing, according to Arita-Chang. The department will also do its own testing using “approved methods” to investigate the “nature and frequency of lead fragments,” Arita-Chang said.

“We are also contacting the Navy to learn more about the Navy and Marine Corps’ monitoring at this site, as they have not reported the presence of contamination from the shooting range on the public beach,” Arita-Chang said. “We will investigate and take all appropriate steps to protect public health and the environment.”

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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