City knew for years about lead concerns at shooting range, but did little to warn workers of danger
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Gun owners on Oahu are still without a public range as a probe into possible lead contamination at Koko Head Shooting Complex continues ― and new details emerge about what the city knew.
Two months ago, the range closed abruptly after tests showed nearly everyone who worked there had elevated lead levels. Hawaii News Now has learned it’s not the first time range staff were found to have a concerning amount of lead in their blood, and that the city was informed of the issue.
Reports and interviews revealed the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation did little to protect its workers or educate them about potential hazards at the shooting range.
‘It wasn’t anything serious’
Former range employee Chris Wong said the concerns about lead at the range date back years.
Wong has been shooting for more than three decades, including competitively.
“I have a love for the sport. I believe it’s a right for everyone to be able to have their firearm,” he said. “And I wanted to be involved in the safety aspect of it.”
It’s what inspired the former Kalihi Valley Neighborhood Board chairman to become a firearms instructor. And in 2013, he started working part-time as a range officer at the Koko Head Shooting Complex.
Two years later, Wong says his boss told him he might want to see a doctor.
“I was notified by a co-worker ― my supervisor at the time ― that his lead levels were elevated. So he suggested I go get checked. And when I checked they were elevated,” Wong said.
He says he was kind of shocked “because I do take precautions.”
Although Wong says he never experienced symptoms, it took one year for his lead levels to get back to normal. Not long after getting those initial test results, Wong got another job with the city.
But before he left, Wong said, “I did notify verbally some of the people in Parks and Recs.”
When asked how the Department of Parks and Recreation responded, “It was almost like, ‘Well, good thing you’re transferring.’ That’s it. It wasn’t anything serious.”
It’s unclear what if anything was done with the information about Wong’s health.
When Hawaii News Now asked the city how many former Koko Head Shooting Complex employees had elevated lead level, a spokesperson responded via email “to the best of our knowledge” there was only “one” prior to 2022.
City waited weeks to confirm lead concerns
It’s an issue the Department of Parks and Recreation wasn’t initially forthcoming about.
In mid-September, officials abruptly closed the complex two weeks ahead of a planned berm renovation project.
A city news release cited a staffing shortage but failed to mention the closure was due to the majority its employees having elevated levels of lead in their blood.
After a month and a half of questioning, parks officials finally admitted nine out of 10 staff who were tested had lead levels above the normal range.
HNN has since learned the city has been aware of lead contamination at the range for at least 20 years.
A 2001 report showed extreme levels of lead pollution at the rifle, pistol, silhouette, trap skeet and SWAT ranges. Of the 20 soil samples taken, 15 tested above state regulatory guidelines.
To give you an idea how toxic it was, the report showed four of those samples contained about 100 times more lead than what the state considers safe for a residential area.
Eight years later, in a separate memo, the state Department of Health outlined seven recommendations the city could implement to reduce potential lead exposures.
Those measures included posting signs, advising everyone at the facility to wash their hands frequently, and to avoid eating and drinking while at the range.
But of the seven recommendations the state Health Department made, the city Parks Department only fully followed through with two of them. Those include posting warning signs to alert nearby hikers of the active range and providing dust protection to workers tasked with disturbing potentially contaminated soil during clean-ups.
Health officials also advised the city to keep its berms “well-maintained” to reduce the creation of fine lead particles.
Over the past two decades, the city says it’s encapsulated the backstop just once ― back in 2014.
The same year the Parks Department confirms a former range worker was diagnosed with elevated lead levels.
In 2020, the City also conducted a cleanup of the range firing line, utilizing a consultant expert in the field of environmental hazard construction remediation.
Range closed indefinitely
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi told Hawaii News Now there’s no timeline for reopening the range.
“We’re not going to let people back there unless it’s safe,” he said.
“I don’t know when it’s going to reopen to be honest with you. There’s a lot that has to go into that because that had been going on for a long time with respect to use of the range and what was compiled there and what has to be cleaned up.”
Wong, the former range officer, said he has no interest in suing the city but chose to speak out because he wants to see the lead issue abated and the public park reopened as soon as possible.
He said it’s not right to permanently close Oahu’s only public range for reasons that could have been prevented.
“To have the range shut down, it’s an infringement of rights,” Wong said.
The city did confirm it has hired necessary the environmental consultants.
“We are awaiting the recommendations from the above-mentioned consultant before proceeding with the berm renovation project,” the city said, in a statement.
“We understand the environmental concerns of the neighboring community, and also recognize the shooting complex’s importance to the local firearms community, as this location is the only public shooting range on Oahu. We appreciate their patience while we work with these advisors to make necessary improvements to ensure the shooting complex can once again operate safely upon its reopening.”
Meanwhile, city officials say all Koko Head Shooting Complex workers have been reassigned to work at other parks.
Health officials say casual range users shouldn’t worry too much about lead exposure if they follow safety guidelines.
- Washing your hands and face with soap and water after shooting.
- Changing clothes before you leave the range.
- And washing those items separately from everything else.
It’s also advised not to eat, drink or smoke while shooting.
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