Guard Seeks to End Ban on Lead Bullets

The Massachusetts National Guard wants to resume firing lead bullets at Camp Edwards on Cape Cod, nine years after such ammunition was banned because of fears that the toxic metal could contaminate drinking water supplies.

BOSTON — The Massachusetts National Guard wants to resume firing lead bullets at Camp Edwards on Cape Cod, nine years after such ammunition was banned because of fears that the toxic metal could contaminate drinking water supplies.

The Guard is proposing a number of methods that officials say will contain the bullets and keep them from degrading and leaching into an underground reservoir that is a major source of the Upper Cape's water supply.

"We have a very high level of confidence . . . we will be able to train all of our soldiers in a compatible way with the environment," said Shawn Cody, director of environmental affairs for the Massachusetts National Guard.

After the ban in 1997, the approximately 6,000 New England guardsmen and women who train at Camp Edwards every year had largely been using tungsten ammunition, often referred to as green bullets, because it is lead-free and because the military believed that tungsten was insoluble. But in February, when small amounts of tungsten were discovered dissolved in groundwater below the base, the Guard stopped training with tungsten bullets and sought alternatives.

Other ammunition such as blanks and plastic bullets were determined to not be suitable for training, Guard officials said. Guard troops -- some of whom will be sent to Iraq and Afghanistan -- need to train with live ammunition, the officials said.

The Guard has asked the state's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and the US Environmental Protection Agency for permission to start using lead bullets by April on two ranges most critical to training and eventually on other ranges.

The Romney administration and officials of towns near Camp Edwards support the idea, saying that the base, located in Bourne and Sandwich, is a far different place than it was in 1997, when lead, explosives, and other contaminants were detected in soil and ground water. However, lead from the base has not been detected in a public drinking water supply, state officials said.

Lead can cause severe neurological damage in children.

John DeVillars, then regional administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, prohibited the use of lead bullets and other live ammunitions and later ordered the first federally required cleanup of an active military firing range. The military also began cleaning up contaminants at other firing ranges.

"The atmosphere is very different today at the base. . . . We have good environmental stewardship," said Margo Fenn, executive director of the Cape Cod Commission, a regional planning agency. Still, she said, the commission is concerned that lead bullets might be difficult to contain on some of the base's ranges.

The Guard has proposed two methods to capture the bullets before they can degrade in the environment. One would have soldiers fire into a rubber barrier called a bullet trap. An outer rubber layer would seal to prevent rain from entering and degrading the lead. Another rubber layer in the trap would collect the bullets.

Another system, still in tests, would cover the ground of a pistol range with sand, and soldiers would fire into the sand. A machine like a beach-cleaning device that vacuums up bottle caps and cigarettes, would suck up the bullets, officials said.

"Lead can be used in an environmentally sensitive manner," said Mark Begley, environmental officer for the Environmental Management Commission. The Legislature created the commission in 2002 to represent three state environmental agencies to ensure that training at the base does not affect ground water or the environment. But, he added, "we want to proceed cautiously."

Governor Mitt Romney wants to be sure there is a plan to protect the environment, according to spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, but he "also recognizes that our troops need to train with live ammunition, especially at a time of war."

Representatives of environmental groups said they wanted to learn more about the issue before commenting.

Low levels of lead have been found in monitoring wells on the Massachusetts Military Reservation that includes Camp Edwards, but state and federal officials believe that the lead is primarily from past spills of jet fuel or gasoline. However, tests have shown that some lead on Camp Edwards is inching toward the ground water but has not reached it.

EPA officials drilled new wells under the two ranges where the Guard wants to resume using lead bullets, to be certain that lead did not spread into the ground water. The agency will not decide on the Guard's request until receiving final test results, but EPA and state officials said the lead bullet plan in April is ambitious.

Lead is just one of the reservation's many environmental problems. Although the military did not know it in 1911 when military exercises began in the area, the training base is 100 feet or less above an aquifer that now provides drinking water to more than 200,000 year-round and 500,000 summer residents of the Cape.

Before World War I, soldiers trained with cannons and rifles at the camp. By the 1940s there were hundreds of buildings and tens of thousands of military personnel there. Today, officials are trying to contain and treat plumes of pollution that have reached or are moving toward the aquifer. Several drinking water wells have been shut as a result.

Environment and military officials have been working to scrub the base clean, pumping and filtering ground water, and installing rigorous monitoring systems to detect pollution in the soil and water. It was one of those systems that discovered tungsten in the ground water. Tungsten's effects on human health are unknown, but officials are working to clean it from the soil.

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Source: McClatchy-Tribune Business News

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