Cease fire: Coast Guard halts shooting zones
Written by Muskegon Chronicle   
Sunday, 03 September 2006 03:35

Public outrage over the U.S. Coast Guard's plan to conduct weapons training with live ammunition on all five Great Lakes has temporarily put the exercises on hold.

Coast Guard officials agreed Thursday to extend the public comment period on the proposal by 60 days, said U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland. Hoekstra said he also believes the Coast Guard will hold informational meetings in Michigan on the proposed firing ranges before moving ahead with the plan."I was surprised to learn of the Coast Guard's plans to create firearms training zones on Lake Michigan and am disappointed that it did not do more to inform the public," Hoekstra said.

Chief Petty Officer Robert Lanier, of the U.S. Coast Guard Ninth District, said: "It's clear we didn't do a good job of educating the public about this issue."The Coast Guard wants to establish 34 permanent "safety zones" on the Great Lakes where it would conduct target practice; 13 of those zones are on Lake Michigan.

The agency wants to conduct periodic target practice on the lakes -- shooting real bullets from pistols and machine guns at floating targets while its personnel are on boats -- as part of U.S. Department of Homeland Security training.

All of the proposed firing ranges would be at least five miles offshore, according to Coast Guard officials. The weapons used would include 9 mm pistols, M-16 rifles and M240-B machine guns, which are mounted on all coast guard cutters, Lanier said.Coast Guard personnel conducted 23 weapons training exercises with live ammunition on the Great Lakes earlier this year without incident, Lanier said. Those exercises were conducted in temporary safety zones established on the lakes for target practice with live ammunition.

The Coast Guard appeared poised to move forward with its plan to establish permanent safety zones for target practice until media coverage of the proposal this week sparked concern among boaters, coastal residents and politicians. Federal law permits the Coast Guard to forge ahead with the plan without accepting public comment.

"There are a lot of people who have serious questions about this," said Bernie Halverson, a retired charter boat captain who lives in North Muskegon. He was one of several area residents who called The Chronicle Thursday to criticize the proposed firing ranges.Hoekstra, a member of the Congressional subcommittee that oversees Coast Guard operations, said he was never told about the plan even though some of the proposed firing ranges are in his Congressional district.

The ranges also are in areas frequented by Lake Michigan anglers, sailboats and cross lake ferries in Muskegon and Ludington.Hoekstra said he sent a letter to the Coast Guard Thursday expressing his opposition to establishing firing ranges on Lake Michigan. He said he may support the plan if Coast Guard officials can prove the firing ranges are necessary and that the weapons training can be conducted safely.

Boaters and environmentalists who voiced concerns about the plan praised the Coast Guard's decision to give the public more time to comments.

"I applaud their move to extend the public comment period and give the public an adequate chance to ask questions and seek information about something that is of concern to a lot of folks," said Hugh McDiarmid Jr., a spokesman for the Lansing-based Michigan Environmental Council.

Jim Fenner, president of the Ludington Charter Boat Association, said his group has serious reservations about the proposed firing ranges.

"We want to know when they would do this, how charter captains would be contacted and if we would have to vacate areas where we fish," he said. "There is a whole raft of things we want to know about."

Fenner said he fears boaters might unknowingly travel into one of the target practice areas or be hit by stray bullets fired from powerful machine guns.

Environmentalists expressed concern that lead and other heavy metals in bullets that would be fired on the lakes could harm the lakes and aquatic life.

Lanier said bullets the Coast Guard would use contain a minimal amount of lead and would not pose environmental threats to the lakes. He said the agency would not use bullets encased in depleted uranium, which is mildly radioactive.

A Coast Guard study concluded the weapons training exercises could be conducted without endangering public safety or harming the environment, Lanier said. "Our top priority when we conduct these exercises is public safety," he said.

Officials at the companies that operate cross-lake ferries in Muskegon and Ludington said they were not concerned about the proposed firing ranges.

The Coast Guard published a notice of its plans to conduct target practice in the safety zones in the Aug. 1 federal register and gave the public 30 days to comment on the proposal. The agency did nothing more to explain its proposal to the media or public.

Coast Guard officials earlier this week said the weapons training was necessary to make sure its personnel are "ready for anything."

Coast Guard officials said they would broadcast alerts about the weapons training on marine radio frequencies and spread the word through local media outlets. The target shooting exercises would be suspended if a boat strayed into the target range, federal officials said.

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