City had known about lead problems at the shooting range for years, but did little to warn workers of the danger

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – Gun owners on Oahu still don’t have a public shooting range as investigations into possible lead contamination at the Koko Head Shooting Complex continue — and new details about what the city knew come to light.

Two months ago, the area was abruptly shut down after tests showed almost everyone who worked there had elevated lead levels. Hawaii News Now has learned that this is not the first time a worrying level of lead has been found in the blood of shooting range personnel, and that the city has been notified of the issue.

Reports and interviews indicated that the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation has done little to protect its workers or educate them about possible dangers at the shooting range.

“It wasn’t serious”

Former range employee Chris Wong said concerns about lead in the range date back years.

Wong has been shooting for more than three decades, including in competition.

“I have a love for the sport. I believe everyone has a right to have their gun,” he said. “And I wanted to be involved in the security aspect.”

That’s what inspired the former chair of the Kalihi Valley Neighborhood Board to become a weapons instructor. And in 2013, he began 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 informed by a colleague – my manager at the time – that his lead levels were elevated. So he suggested I get checked out. And when I checked, they were elevated,” Wong said.

TIED TOGETHER: Oahu’s only public shooting range has been closed indefinitely as an investigation into possible lead contamination begins

He says he was kind of shocked “because I’m taking precautions.”

Although Wong says he never had symptoms, it took a year for his lead levels to return to normal. Not long after receiving those initial test results, Wong got another job with the city.

But before leaving, Wong said, “I verbally notified some of the people in Parks and Recs.”

When asked how the Department of Parks and Recreation responded, “It was almost like saying, ‘Well, good thing you’re moving.’ That’s it. It wasn’t serious.”

It’s unclear what 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 levels, a spokesperson responded via email “to the best of my knowledge” that there was only “one” prior to 2022.

The city waited weeks to confirm the concerns

It’s an issue the Department of Parks and Recreation was initially reluctant to address.

In mid-September, officials abruptly closed the complex two weeks ahead of a planned berm clean-up project.

A press release from the city cited a staff shortage but failed to mention that the closure was due to the majority of its employees having elevated blood lead levels.

After a month and a half of questioning, park officials finally admitted that nine out of ten employees tested had lead levels above the normal range.

HNN has since learned that the city has known of lead contamination at the shooting range for at least 20 years.

A 2001 report showed extreme levels of lead in the rifle, pistol, silhouette, trap skeet, and SWAT stands. Of the 20 soil samples collected, 15 were tested above state regulatory guidelines.

[Read the 2001 report on lead levels at the shooting range by clicking here.]

To give you an idea of ​​how toxic it was, the report showed that four of those samples contained about 100 times more lead than 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 exposure.

These measures included posting signs, advising everyone at the facility to wash their hands frequently, and avoiding eating and drinking on the shooting range.

But of the seven recommendations of the State Health Office, the City Park Office has only fully implemented two. These include posting warning signs to alert nearby hikers to the active area and dust cover for workers tasked with disrupting potentially contaminated soil during clean-up operations.

Health officials also advised the city to keep its berms “well maintained” to reduce the build-up of fine lead particles.

In the past two decades, the city has only encapsulated the backstop once — back in 2014.

That same year, the Parks Department confirmed that a former pasture worker was diagnosed with elevated lead levels.

Area closed indefinitely

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi told Hawaii News Now there was no timeline for the area to reopen.

“We don’t let people back there unless it’s safe,” he said.

He added:

“I don’t know when it will reopen to be honest. A lot has to go in there, because that has been the case for a long time in terms of the use of the range and what has been collected and what needs to be cleaned up.”

Wong, the former range officer, said he had no interest in suing the city but chose to speak out because he wants the lead issue to be resolved and the public park to reopen as soon as possible.

He said it wasn’t right to permanently close Oahu’s only public space for reasons that could have been prevented.

“Closing the range is a violation of rights,” Wong said.

The city has confirmed that it has hired the necessary environmental consultants.

“We are awaiting the recommendations of the above consultant before proceeding with the berm renovation project,” the city said in a statement.

“We understand the environmental concerns of neighboring communities and also recognize the importance of the shooting complex 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 consultants to make the necessary improvements to allow the firing complex to operate safely once it reopens.”

Meanwhile, city officials say all Koko Head Shooting Complex workers have been transferred to work at other parks.

Health officials say casual users shouldn’t worry too much about lead exposure if they’re following safety guidelines.

This includes:

  • After shooting, wash your hands and face with soap and water.
  • Change clothes before leaving the area.
  • And washing these things separately from everything else.

It is also recommended not to eat, drink or smoke while shooting.