Thursday, October 19, 2006

Lead Astray

You may have heard of the U.S. Coast Guard's plan to create 34 live-fire zones on the Great Lakes, in order to train personnel on machine guns that fire 600 lead bullets per minute. A new article offers some interesting details on this scheme:

Coast Guard personnel would fire up to 430,000 bullets each year in the training zones, which are to be scattered across all five Great Lakes, according to The Muskegon Chronicle.
This adds up to about 6,900 pounds of lead per year. According to the the EPA:
Michigan industries in 2004 discharged 4,069 pounds of lead compounds into surface waters....
So we're potentially looking at dumping almost 11,000 pounds of lead per year into the world's largest supply of fresh water.

That said, assessing the hazard posed by lead (and lead compounds) in fresh water is complicated. In terms of wildlife, the greatest threat ordinarily comes from ingesting pellets (as few as three pellets can poison a swan). I've addressed other problems with lead ammunition elsewhere; I don't know whether the Coast Guard's ammunition poses these problems, nor whether it's prone to fragmentation. The company that performed a health-risk assessment said the firing ranges would "result in no elevated risks"; however, an aside buried later in the article sets off some alarm bells:
Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson asked for more long-term analysis and another study that uses real lake water instead of cleaned water.
I don't know what "cleaned" means...but if they used pure, pH-neutral water, I'd probably want to see another study too.

There may be other problems with the study (or at least with the conclusions it's being used to justify). The Michigan Environmental Council claims that the researchers ignored existing background contamination, failed to take migratory bird patterns into account, and generalized across all 34 sites instead of considering whether each site could tolerate being used as a firing range. It also quotes the study as saying:
Plants and animals that exist at the bottom of the food chain might ingest and be directly exposed to the metals in the sediment.
On the other hand, the MEC doesn't seem to know that "adsorb" is a real word, which is a little troubling.

Environmental issues aside, I remain skeptical that there's a need for 34 firing ranges on the Great Lakes. In an earlier post on the freshwater shells of Quebec, I quoted an MP who professed to find the bombardment of Lac St.-Pierre inexplicable:
I was four years old when people starting shooting into Lac Saint-Pierre in 1952. We can't really offer any explanation for the first 40 or 50 years of this....
The MP was being coy, of course. They had plenty of explanations at the time, just as they have now:
Coast Guard officials have said that the live-fire training is needed to protect the Great Lakes region from terrorism and other illegal activities.
You can't argue with that. After all, we wouldn't want terrorists to poison our water, or contaminate our food.

The DOT is accepting public comments on docket No. 25767 until November 13.

(Photo of Lake Michigan via the American Photochrom Archive.)


charley said...

i had not realized william henry jackson did any work in color.

nor this, He was a great-great nephew of Samuel Wilson, the progenitor of America's national symbol Uncle Sam.

which has nothing to do with lead in the water. i'm more concerned about a bunch of yahoos with military arsenal cruising around looking for some fun, and action.

Phila said...

And anyway, when did the Great Lakes suddenly become hotbeds of terraist activity?

Well, the theory is that the evildoers will come over from terrorist-coddling Canada (perhaps bearing armloads of cheap but poisonous prescription drugs).

Interrobang said...

Are they taking comments from non-US citizens? I live in the Great Lakes watershed, and if they're going to be dumping huge amounts of lead ammo into the lakes (my drinking water comes from Lake Huron!!), that's a big, big problem, as far as I'm concerned.

I'd write to my MP, but he resigned so he could run for mayor (and lose). Writing to the Prime Minister won't help, either, since someone fed him too many lead paint chips when he was a kid, and he grew up to be just like Bush.

Phila said...


I actually looked for official Canadian info, and couldn't find any.

However, Mike Bradley of Sarnia and David Miller both seem to be against it...