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Unfriendly fire

Lead in bullets fired at ranges pose a danger to soil, groundwater and wildlife.

June 22, 2004|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

The city of Chico, Calif., has set aside $1.6 million to clean up a shooting range, and Santa Cruz may have to spend $500,000 to get the lead out.

The culprit: billions of bullets and shotgun pellets that shooters discharge on these and other ranges nationwide. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that people blast tens of millions of pounds of lead each year at the country's 9,000 outdoor ranges.

Roughly 4% of all lead produced in the United States -- about 80,000 tons a year -- becomes bullets and shot.

Plinkers and target shooters fire most of the bullets at nonmilitary shooting ranges. Gun owners and environmentalists worry that lead injures wildlife and reaches drinking water supplies.

At indoor ranges, bullet fragments create lead dust particles that shooters may ingest, according to medical studies.

The U.S. Forest Service has written guidelines about how shooting ranges should be regulated, including a section on the need for environmental protection.

The nonprofit Violence Policy Center issued a scathing report three years ago citing not only lead poisoning but also excessive noise and what it called the "Rambo factor" -- people blasting away at targets with rapid-fire, semiautomatic weapons.

A decade ago, such a scene unfolded every weekend at the Lytle Creek shooting area in the San Bernardino National Forest, as cops and gangsters and children stood shoulder to shoulder shredding bottles, cans, major appliances and cars with gunfire. Shooting was banned there in 1994, large debris was removed and a smaller, regulated range reopened five years later.

"There were some pretty bad people who used to come out here and shoot," says district ranger Gabe Garcia. He says a huge vacuum-cleaner device is being used to remove debris, including lead, so storms don't wash it into the creek.

In May, federal authorities issued an emergency order to close a popular shooting site near Temecula because bullets were striking houses up to two miles away.

Lead is largely inert, but in the body it can lead to learning impairments and neurological damage. When exposed to acidic water or soil, bullets and shot dissolve and can enter soil and reach groundwater.

Storm runoff carries contaminants to streams, wetlands and bays where waterfowl can ingest them. More than a dozen endangered condors, subject of a multimillion-dollar recovery effort in California and the West, have died from ingesting bullets."I would be the last one to say that every firing range is a problem, because that's not true," says Tom Diaz, author of the Violence Policy Center study. "It's a problem that grows out of a couple of things -- people are ignorant or it's a mom-and-pop local club thing. People who open new ranges today are probably aware of the problem and do their best to keep them clean."

Rick Patterson, director of facilities development for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, says the gun industry has researched the issue of lead and shooting ranges.

"We literally wrote the book on the environmental aspects of shooting ranges," he says. The foundation concluded that ranges should not be located near wetlands frequented by birds, and soil should be monitored to ensure it's not too acidic. However, these are only recommendations; it's up to gun-range owners to heed them.

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