Closure of shooting range provokes an unusual clash


For five decades, shotgun enthusiasts were able to visit the Miramar military base for target practice and skeet shooting.

In 2008, 95,000 rounds were fired by members and guests of the San Diego Shotgun Sports Assn., which ran a 29-acre range on the base.

Now the military has closed the facility out of concern for the toxic contamination caused by years of lead shotgun pellets landing in a 13-acre “overshot” area next to the range.


The issue has provoked an unusual clash between the Marine Corps and possibly its biggest supporter in Congress, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Alpine).

Hunter was a Marine officer in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before that, he would frequent the Miramar shotgun range while a student at San Diego State.

Hunter hopes to persuade — or force — the Marine Corps to reverse a decision announced last month to permanently close the range and begin removing hazardous waste.

He believes the Marine Corps and its parent service, the Navy, have rushed to environmental judgment.

He calculates that if National Rifle Assn.-friendly Republicans take control of Congress in the Nov. 2 election, his chances of saving the range will greatly improve. He was annoyed that the Marines recently showed the property to reporters without inviting either him or the shotgun association.

“The Marines have mishandled the situation from the beginning,” said Hunter’s spokesman, Joe Kasper.


The Marine Corps, which inherited the Miramar base (and the shotgun association lease) from the Navy when it took control of the air station in the 1990s, believes it is stuck between strict environmental laws and a well-meaning civilian group that includes many ex-military members.

“I’m a hunter, I’m a shotgun shooter,” said Col. Frank Richie, the base commander. “[But] I’m bound to follow the law.”

Hunter hopes to change that law, possibly by inserting an amendment into the defense appropriations bill.

Meanwhile, the shotgun sports association said the military has made the cleanup — estimated to cost more than $20 million — needlessly complex and expensive. The group, which once had 750 members, has offered its own cleanup at a fraction of that cost.

“It seems to have fallen on deaf ears,” said association president Robert Keefe, a Navy veteran.

The shotgun association moved onto the base in 1957 and located its range on the current site in 1975, when the base was Miramar Naval Air Station.


The range is tucked in a corner of the 24,000-acre base. The overshot area is down a steep hill, in a brushy ravine where deer and coyotes roam and a stream rushes through during the rainy season.

Nearby is a landing pad where helicopter pilots learn how to land on the confined space of an aircraft carrier. Building a fence or a net — it might have to be as high as 200 feet — to keep shot from flying off the range property would increase the hazards for pilots using the pad, Richie said.

In 2008, the Marine Corps began removing some concrete blocks left by the Navy in the overshot area. Workers noticed an enormous number of small blue pellets on the ground, as well as plastic “wads” used to keep powder and shot in place in a shotgun cartridge.

The range was ordered closed in October 2008, but shotgun association members felt it would be only a temporary cease-fire.

Hoping that it would speed reopening of the range, Hunter added an amendment to that year’s defense bill ordering an environmental review by the end of this year. Just the opposite happened.

An analysis found significant levels of arsenic, copper, lead, zinc and other substances. The analysis declared the acreage to be important to the endangered fairy shrimp and that the creek bed, dry most of the year, qualified as a “regulated waterway.”


The findings were reviewed and endorsed by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Armed with those facts, then-Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway recommended that the range remain closed permanently and the process of removing the toxic material begin.

Conway’s recommendation was accepted by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and announced Oct. 14. The Marine Corps also announced that finding a new place on base for the range “would cost millions of dollars and commit scarce land to non-military purposes.”

To the Marine Corps, the cost of the cleanup should be paid by the association, another point of contention.

Richie, an F/A-18 aviator assigned as the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar commander earlier this year, conceded there is some discomfort in having a dispute with a group the military has long considered part of its extended family.

“I admire all those in the shotgun club, and the retired military who shot at the facility, but if they were in my shoes, they’d do the same thing,” Richie said.