About 120 people from as far away as Chicago and Texas took the
opportunity to express concerns over a Coast Guard plan to perform
live-fire training exercises in 34 different “safety zones” on the
Great Lakes Wednesday night.
The majority of the 40 or so speakers were Michigan residents concerned specifically about Lake Michigan, although many were concerned about the lakes as a whole.
No residents of Mason, Manistee or Oceana counties identified themselves as such during their statements, but at least three men with local boat slips attended the reception period prior to the public hearing.
Tom Greenberg of EducatedAngler.com, who docks at Harbor View Marina for much of the summer, said his concerns were with the placement of the zones off Muskegon and Ludington, which seem to be close to the ferry routes. He wondered why the Ludington zone couldn’t be relocated to Little Point Sable where there are fewer people and fewer boaters. He said the Grand Haven zone would also be better placed off Port Sheldon. Greenberg said his main concerns were for the notification of transient boaters at busy ports like Ludington and Manistee where anglers may not receive notification until they arrive in port, if at all.
Capt. Mike Parks, the chief of the Coast Guard Ninth District’s Response Branch, said prior to the hearing that part of the goal of the hearings is to gather suggestions on how mariners would best be notified. But he said he was hesitant to accept boaters using the excuse that they don’t monitor their radio because the Coast Guard believes that a marine radio is a vital safety tool for boaters. Parks said the timing of the exercises would rely heavily on input from local commanders because the last thing the Coast Guard wants is boaters wandering into a zone during an exercise. Training is estimated to take between two and six hours and every interruption means a cease fire, which stretches the exercises and wastes time.
During the hearing, Master Chief Gunner’s Mate Patrick O’Kelly explained that one boat is used for firing exercises and at least one boat is used as a “safety platform” to monitor radar in all directions for a distance of 6,000 yards. If a boat enters the zone, exercises are halted.
Dave German of Belding, who owns Magna Dyne Products, which manufactures Northport Nailer spoons, keeps his boat in Pentwater each summer and left before the public comment even started.
“I guess my biggest concern was how much exercises are going to affect the charter business in the state,” German said. “I spoke to several officers and they seemed very open to the fact that we have a busy season and a slow season.”
He said if the Coast Guard could accommodate anglers in scheduling its exercises, he was fine with the live-fire drills.
“I don’t think I need to spend any longer because my questions have been answered and my concerns have been addressed,” German said.
About 40 other people took the opportunity for three minutes of public comment, mostly centered on environmental concerns, possible boater safety issues or simple opposition to war-like practices. The mayors of Grand Haven, Ferrysberg and Grand Rapids spoke, as did representatives of the Michigan Environmental Council, the Alliance for the Great Lakes and the director of the State of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes.
Jim Goodenow, a retired Coast Guardsman from Texas said that on the U.S.-Mexico border there are many American residents opposed to the National Guard’s presence and he believed more armed military presence would polarize more people against the military. He implored the panel headed by Admiral John Crowley to remember the opposition to a U.S. Navy bombing range on the Puerto Rican Island of Vieques and to think about what kind of message would be sent to Canada.
“At this time, let us not become a gunboat diplomacy operation,” he said.
Dale Lehman was one of a handful of people from Chicago who spoke against the zones for environmental and other reasons. He said he collected 400 signatures opposed to the zones in less than 10 days.
Another man said the Coast Guard should be prepared to face civil disobedience from college students, clergy members, Canadians and others to keep the exercises from taking place.
Shirley Cooper from the Great Lakes Cruising Club and a Coast Guard Auxiliarist said she understood the need for training but questioned the location and number of zones.
Jennifer Williams from Grand Haven said it bothered her that the Coast Guard invoked 9/11 and homeland security in trying to arm Coast Guard boats on the Great Lakes.
“Please don’t insult our intelligence,” she said, referring to the Guard calling the zones, “safety zones.”
Susan Stamey of the Braveheart Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Twin Lake said the Coast Guard should protect natural resources, not destroy them, noting that she cared for a bald eagle dying of lead poisoning. She asked the Coast Guard to consider lead-free ammunition.
A handful of people said they wanted the training because they knew that Coast Guard personnel from the Great Lakes could be transferred anywhere, including the Middle East. Others said they wanted the best-trained Coast Guard possible.
Jim Hopper of Norton Shores said the studies the Coast Guard commissioned were flawed because they considered contamination of just plain water instead of the already-contaminated water of the Great Lakes. He noted that sportfishing is a huge industry on the Great Lakes and was one of several people concerned that just the publicity from such training could have a negative impact. He suggested the Coast Guard do some type of virtual training.
Bill Willis identified himself only as a recreational boater but noted that the system that requires only money to buy and operate a boat on the Great Lakes is at least as big a threat to public safety as any security concern.
Alice Hurt of Holland asked the Coast Guard to consider the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement with Canada, which allows zero discharge of toxic chemicals in the Great Lakes and asked the panel to consider the psychological effects that gunfire could have on children.
Ken DeBeaussaert, Director of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes, said the state supports efforts to enhance security on the Great Lakes but would like the Coast Guard to consider the protection of those lakes as resources. He said the state wanted to make sure everyone on the lakes would be adequately notified, using state agencies. He asked that the Coast Guard consider conducting exercises only in early spring and late fall and asked how the zones were determined “not to be heavily used” and wondered if the exercises could be done with fewer sites.
Crowley said the Coast Guard intended to “take a look at all the information and do the right thing,” at the conclusion of the hearings. He said he was also impressed by the amount of respect the different parties had for each other’s views.
Commander Robert Lanier of the Ninth District’s Public Affairs Office said the Coast Guard would not communicate only through the Federal Register in the future and would continue to use the Web site recently established to inform people about the zones and hearings.
U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra used public comment time to explain that the panel members couldn’t answer because of the way the public hearing was structured after the exercises were proposed through the Federal Register.
Hoekstra later said, as a result of his communications with the Coast Guard, he believed that the Coast Guard would accommodate commercial and recreational traffic.
“How many boats are going five miles out on Lake Michigan in mid-October on a Monday morning?” he said after the hearing.
He said he believed the process would move forward in a positive way from the hearings.
“For a lot of other issues brought up you could reach reasonable accommodations,” Hoekstra said.