Coast Guard aims to create live-ammo training zones
Written by Muskegon Chronicle   
Wednesday, 30 August 2006 10:22

Boaters may soon hear the sounds of machine guns and pistols being fired on the Great Lakes, but the gunfire won't be coming from pirates.The U.S. Coast Guard wants to conduct target practice -- using real guns and live ammunition -- in 26 "safety zones" spread across all five Great Lakes.

Thirteen of the proposed firing ranges are on Lake Michigan, and four of those are in areas regularly traversed by charter fishing boats, sailboats and cross-lake car ferries that operate out of Muskegon and Ludington, according to Coast Guard records.The agency wants to establish the safety zones to "protect vessels and people from projectiles associated with live-fire gun exercises ... (including) projectiles that may ricochet and damage vessels and/or cause death or serious bodily harm," according Coast Guard documents.

Chief Petty Officer Robert Lanier, of the U.S. Coast Guard Ninth District, said the proposed target ranges would allow Coast Guard units to perform homeland defense exercises by firing at floating targets from cutters and small boats. Boaters would be required to stay out of the safety zones when Coast Guard crews were conducting target practice.

"One of the main goals of these zones is to make sure the Coast Guard is ready for anything," Lanier said.

Marina managers and charter boat captains interviewed by The Chronicle expressed concern about the proposed firing ranges.

"If they do this during the fishing season, I think it would be a recipe for problems," said Jim Fenner, president of the Ludington Charter Boat Association. "I'm not against homeland security, but I can see the potential for problems."

There are hundreds of fishing boats plying the waters of Lake Michigan offshore of Ludington on any given day between May and September, Fenner said. Ludington has the region's largest charter fishing fleet, with 67 boats that travel up to 20 miles from Ludington to catch fish, he said.

One of the other proposed target ranges is between Muskegon and Grand Haven, another salmon fishing hotspot.

Environmentalists said they fear the proposed exercises could result in thousands of lead bullets and other toxic heavy metals ending up in the lakes. They want the Coast Guard to hold public hearings on the proposal before forging ahead with the weapons training exercises.

"This is an issue that directly affects the boating public's safety and potentially affects the aquatic ecosystem of the Great Lakes," said Hugh McDiarmid Jr., a spokesman for the Michigan Environmental Council.

The training exercises would involve the use of hand-held weapons, ranging from handguns to M-16 rifles, fired from Coast Guard vessels at floating targets. Each drill would last "only a couple of hours, depending on how many personnel need training," Lanier said.

The Coast Guard has not yet scheduled any target shooting exercises on any of the lakes. The agency is taking public comment on the proposal through Thursday before making a final decision.

If the target ranges are approved, the maximum number of drills held annually would be five per lake.

Lanier said only one exercise would be held at a time on a particular lake. Some safety zones might not be used at all while others possibly could be used for more than one training exercise.

"The one thing we want people to know is we are not shutting down the lake and these zones are at least five miles off the coast or five miles off the international border," Lanier said.

To secure a safety zone, the Coast Guard would broadcast notices on the recreational marine band radio channel, alert the public through area media and through postings at area marinas. He said the Coast Guard also would have safety officials monitor the drill and be on the lookout for errant boaters.

"If any vessel was to get into the path of the drill or come close to the safety zone while we were conducting training, the safety officer would immediately cancel the drill until we were able to notify the person that he is entering a safety zone," Lanier said.

Many boaters don't have marine radios and others don't listen to channels the Coast Guard uses to broadcast information, said Brian Torresen, a sailor and service manager at Torresen Marina in Muskegon.

"There are times when people get out in the lake, start relaxing and wouldn't be looking for people shooting live ammunition," Torresen said.

"I hate to admit, it but there are a lot of dumb boaters out there," Fenner said.

Even though four of the proposed zones are in the path of the Lake Express and Badger cross-lake ferries operating out of Muskegon and Ludington, Lanier said the Coast Guard "looked at all consideration of passenger ferries, commercial vessels and fishing vessels" before proposing the zones.

He said the Coast Guard would reevaluate the proposed target shooting zones based on public comments received, but the deadline for public comment is Thursday.

©2006 Muskegon Chronicle

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