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U.S. Delays Plan for Machine-Gun Drills on Great Lakes

September 03, 2006|Michael Hawthorne | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — The Coast Guard has been quietly planning to conduct target practice on Lake Michigan with boat-mounted machine guns that would be fired a few miles from beaches along the North Shore.

But plans to establish a permanent "live-fire zone" in waters near Illinois' Highland Park, Lake Forest and Waukegan -- and in 33 other spots around the Great Lakes -- are on hold after boating groups and a congressman complained that the public wasn't informed about the training exercises.

The plans, which required changes to a nearly 200-year-old disarmament treaty with Canada, are raising concerns that recreational boaters might unwittingly cross into the training areas or get hit by stray bullets. Car ferries that operate during the summer between Wisconsin and Michigan also would pass through the live-fire zones.

And environmental groups are concerned that lead and other metals in the bullets could add more toxic pollution to the Great Lakes.

"This was a surprise to me and many others," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who serves on a congressional subcommittee that oversees the Coast Guard. "When we think about the Coast Guard on the Great Lakes, we think about search-and-rescue missions, not firing machine guns."

Coast Guard stations around the Great Lakes began mounting M-240 machine guns on cutters and small boats this year, the first time since World War II that there have been routine armed patrols on the lakes.

The guns, which can fire up to 600 rounds a minute, were installed as part of the nation's anti-terrorism efforts, according to filings in the Federal Register.

Firing live ammunition at floating targets in the lakes is "essential to carrying out Coast Guard missions relating to military operations and national security," the documents state.

Coast Guard boats on the Great Lakes previously did not have mounted weapons, though crews carried rifles and pistols on board.

Critics said the only notice of the training exercises was published Aug. 1 in the Federal Register. Because the Coast Guard now is part of the Department of Homeland Security, it was not required to hold public hearings or study potential environmental impact.

Under pressure from Hoekstra, Coast Guard officials decided Friday to accept public comments for 60 days. They also are considering holding meetings around the Great Lakes to provide more information.

Chief Petty Officer Robert Lanier, a spokesman for the Coast Guard's 9th District office in Cleveland, said each zone would be used for target practice by local Guard members two to three times a year. The training exercises would last one or two days, Lanier said, though the notice filed in the Federal Register does not limit when the zones could be used.

"Our top priority when conducting these exercises is public safety," Lanier said.

In response to concerns about lead bullets falling into the lakes, the Coast Guard said its own study found the potential environmental effects would be minimal. The Michigan Environmental Council, though, wants an independent analysis.

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