Lead Left on the Gun Range

  • Lawrence McLiverty, of Woodstock, Vt., walks back to the pistol bench at Hammond Cove Shooting Range in Hartland, Vt., after gathering his used targets on May 27, 2016. McLiverty, who works court security in New Hampshire, has been shooting his gun regularly for the past three years after beginning the job, but he said, “you hope you never have to actually use it.” (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Mac Snyder

  • Lawrence McLiverty, of Woodstock, Vt., loads his magazine at Hammond Cove Shooting Range in Hartland, Vt., on May 27, 2016. (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Mac Snyder

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/27/2016 11:56:35 PM
Modified: 5/27/2016 11:56:44 PM

Thetford — With gun ownership and target shooting on the rise, neighbors of several Upper Valley gun ranges have organized to protest the increased noise that has resulted.

Abutters to a range in Thetford recently won concessions on firing rates and ammunition. Residents in Plainfield, who hear shots from a facility in Hartland, have been pushing officials in both Vermont and New Hampshire to do something about the noise.

But so far the public has focused relatively little attention on an unheard and unseen byproduct of gun ranges: lead deposits.

The dense — and highly toxic — element can be found in the cores of many modern jacketed bullets, as well as in the explosive primer that ignites gunpowder, and with every shot fired at the range, a tiny amount enters the environment.

Over time, the substance builds up, and, depending on the lay of the land around a particular range, can run off into groundwater.

In Thetford, home to a shooting range run by the Upper Valley Fish & Game Club, it has done just that. Tests by state officials in 2014 found elevated amounts of lead in a nearby stream.

The Thetford range also illustrates a noteworthy aspect of the relevant regulations in the Twin States: Neither Vermont nor New Hampshire routinely monitors ranges for lead. They conduct testing only when someone brings concerns to them.

In Vermont, moreover, state law shields owners, operators and users of such facilities from nuisance suits. It also forbids municipalities from creating ordinances that “prohibit, reduce, or limit discharge at any existing sport shooting range.”

“The short story is that, in general, shooting ranges aren’t regulated,” said Tami Wuestenberg, an environmental analyst for the Waste Management and Prevention Division of Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

If someone brings her office a sample showing levels of lead above Vermont standards, Wuestenberg said, state officials may step in. But even then, many safety measures they recommend are not mandatory.

“The Department of Fish & Wildlife works with the ranges to educate (range managers) about the (Environmental Protection Agency’s) best management practices and encourages them to have an environmental stewardship plan, but as of right now, all of this is voluntary,” she said.

Testing at the Thetford range followed this pattern. In 2014, resident Lilian Shen, who sits on the town’s conservation commission, warned of the possibility that lead could enter nearby water sources.

Shooting has gone on there for decades, Shen said, and the facility stands near some “very sensitive and quite unique wetlands.”

“I thought, ‘Well hey, we probably should test this,’ ” she said in an interview earlier this month.

Later in 2014, state officials sampled a drainage ditch, a stream, and a pond near the Thetford range and found elevated quantities of lead everywhere except in the pond.

Nevertheless, Wuestenberg said, the lead concentrations were not high enough to warrant putting the site on the state’s hazardous waste sites list, and it appeared unlikely that the contamination had spread farther.

State officials left it to residents, the town and the club to decide what to do.

This past year, the Upper Valley Fish & Game Club happened to be renegotiating its lease for the range, which is located on town-owned land. In the final agreement, which was signed last month, members agreed to draw up an environmental stewardship plan within 90 days and seek approval from state agencies, who would continue to monitor the site.

Club member Bill Huff said the remedial effort likely would involve putting down lime, an alkaline substance that comes from heating limestone and that can help keep lead from dissolving into water and migrating off-site. He also said the club planned to dig sand pits that would trap bullet residue for periodic removal.

The Hammond Cove Shooting Range in Hartland is run by Vermont officials, who say they test their own facilities for lead. The latest round of samplings was in 2007, according to gun range technician Daneil Pieterse, years before the state took over in Hartland.

That expansion took place in 2012; Pieterse said another test was scheduled for this year.

In New Hampshire, the regulatory situation is much the same: State officials do not monitor shooting facilities for lead unless a problem has been identified. “(We) do not regulate active shooting ranges unless (there are) impacts to surface water or wetlands,” Karlee Kenison of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services said in an email.

Beverly Drouin, who works in lead protection for the state Department of Health and Services, said the state has no rules in place to shield those who use ranges from lead dust that accumulates there.

“If you and I were to walk in off the street as guests, there’s no regulations for what we are exposed to,” she said.

Ammunition is growing safer as manufacturers switch to lead-free or jacketed bullets, which typically contain less of the element, but the threshold for human toxicity is low. Lead poses a particular hazard to children because the substance can affect their mental and physical development.

Drouin noted that federal regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration protect those most at risk: range workers, especially janitors who clean up at the end of the day. Those people are in an OSHA medical monitoring program, she said, and their blood is regularly tested for lead.

She added that public officials know little about how much the toxic element might spread outside the state’s ranges.

“Is there an exposure to the general public?” she asked. “It’s indeterminate what the exposure is there; there’s just not a lot of data.”

Besides efforts from the military, there has been minimal tracking of lead from bullets in New Hampshire, either by public entities or private institutions such as universities, Drouin said.

“There’s not a lot written about it because there’s not a high level of concern with the public,” Drouin said. “That doesn’t mean there might not be something going on, but there’s not a level of concern with the public, and the public drives most everything.”

Residents and gun club members have mixed feelings about whether the current rules are enough to protect public health.

Shen, the conservation commission member who raised concerns about lead in Thetford, said the state should regulate ranges whether or not they are asked to.

“Should they, as a matter of course?” Shen asked. “Yes, they should.”

Huff, the Thetford gun club member, thought otherwise.

“There’s no reason to regulate something that’s not an issue,” he said.

Ranges such as the one in Thetford are handling the matter on their own, Huff said.

“We’ve already taken steps to mitigate lead, even though it’s not a problem,” he said.

And although the town has seen bitter clashes over the terms of the club’s lease, particularly over requirements regarding noise, residents appeared to find some common ground over lead. Earlier this month, Shen expressed support for measures that town, state and gun-range officials had taken to monitor and contain the substance in Thetford.

“It seems to be reasonable,” she said. “Vermont is not in the business of trying to shut down places where people shoot.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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