Environment Picture

Guns on Great Lakes fall silent

Machine gun training spewing unregulated amounts of toxic lead into Great Lakes sediment was halted—then shelved indefinitely—by the U.S. Coast Guard after a chorus of objections from across the region.

An obscure Aug. 1 public notice in the Federal Register advertising a 30-day public comment period was the lone publicity for the proposed creation of 34 training zones that would have encompassed 2,500 square miles among the five lakes. But in mid-August the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter discovered the notice, and MEC began lobbying the state’s media to cover the story.

Just two days before the comment period was to close, the story broke, creating a firestorm of objections from both sides of the international border.

Under pressure, the Coast Guard halted the “temporary” training exercises that were underway. It also extended the comment period and agreed to a series of public hearings throughout the fall. A five-page briefing document created by MEC was distributed throughout the Great Lakes, detailing how the plan would result in thousands of pounds of lead and other toxics from bullets being dumped each year into the lakes’ ecosystem.

More than 7,000 pounds annually of lead, a carcinogen and neurotoxin, could disintegrate and enter the lakes’ food chain, making its way all the way up to humans who eat Great Lakes fish, the Coast Guard’s own consultant concluded.

What’s more, the Guard’s plan did not examine alternatives to lead bullets, include a ceiling on the amount of ammunition to be fired or commission an environmental impact statement. As a branch of the military, the Guard claimed it was exempt from the normal oversight process which would require an accounting of the amount of toxics dumped in the lakes and a pollution discharge permit.

On Dec. 18, the Coast Guard abandoned the plan indefinitely.

“The Coast Guard appreciates the thoughtful comments we received, and we will work with the public to ensure the Coast Guard can meet any threat to public safety or security,” Rear Adm. John E. Crowley, Jr., commander of the Ninth Coast Guard District in Cleveland, said in a press statement.

But he acknowledged the Guard may return with a revised plan in the future. Next time, he said, the Guard would “take the time to get this right” and was committed to finding “environmentally-friendly alternatives to the lead ammunition we currently use.”
-Hugh McDiarmid Jr., Michigan Environmental Council
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