Coast Guard defends safety zones
Written by Green Bay Press-Gazette   
Thursday, 09 November 2006 13:48

The U.S. Coast Guard wants to mount fully automatic machine guns on its boats, designate 34 locations on the Great Lakes, and fire off thousands of copper-encased bullets during training exercises each year.

Those who gathered Wednesday at Stone Harbor Resort and Conference Center heard specifics about the safety zone and weapons training proposal.

The session was the last of nine public meetings the Coast Guard has conducted around the Great Lakes region since Oct. 16.

The country's oldest maritime agency is proposing to designate the largest number of safety zones, 14, in Lake Michigan, consuming 5.1 percent of the lake's 22,178 square miles.

Two of these zones are about 9.2 miles offshore from the Door Peninsula in a minimum of 400 feet of water: one east of Washington Island, the other between Sturgeon Bay and Algoma.

These zones would be active a couple times a year, for two to six hours. At all other times the zones would remain open to mariners.

Rear Adm. John Crowley Jr., commander of the Ninth Coast Guard District, has cited terrorist threats as the reason for the live-fire training in order to protect the Great Lakes.

Some of the 13 people who commented during Wednesday's meeting agreed the proposal was necessary.

"We have nuclear power plants on the shore; you don't know when the Coast Guard is going to have to be called to defend those," said James Tibbetts, a retired Sturgeon Bay surgeon and a fisherman.

Those who opposed or questioned the proposal cited navigational or environmental concerns; others thought a military presence on the lakes sent a wrong message to citizens.

When it came to safety issues, residents were concerned that boaters would be sharing open waters with fully automated machine guns that have a maximum range of 4,073 yards.

Crews would scan a 10-mile range of open water between the radar and visual lookouts that would be run on deck during training exercises, said Gus Wulfkuhle, chief of enforcement for the Ninth Coast Guard District.

"We would stop the exercise if someone strays into that area," Wulfkuhle said. "We won't say, 'Oh well, it's a safety zone.'"

Each of the Coast Guard's 46 stations would fire about 3,000 bullets into the waters each year. The components of the bullets include lead, copper and zinc. People have been concerned, then, with elevated concentrations of these components leaching into the mud, water and tissue of wildlife and humans, said, James Maughan, a water resource specialist with CH2M Hill out of Boston.

The Coast Guard hired Maughan's business to conduct environmental analysis and risk assessment. Maughan conducted the bulk of those studies. Through research he shared with the Sturgeon Bay audience, CH2M Hill has concluded the bullets would not elevate risks for humans or the environment.

Some weren't especially swayed by the conclusions.

"We have laws against a fisherman even dropping one lead sinker into the water intentionally," said Thomas Dogan, secretary of the Lake Michigan Yachting Association.

The U.S. Coast Guard, whose oversight was transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003, is proposing the permanent safety zones because, for the first time in its history, the agency is proposing to arm its Great Lakes fleet with fully automated weapons, said Capt. Bruce Jones, sector commander for the Ninth Coast Guard District.

"It's not that we think there's any threat off Washington Island or Sturgeon Bay," Jones said. "But if we have an elevated terrorist risk, we'd have to send crews, trained crews, from Sturgeon Bay to, say, Detroit."

Though it would be the first time the U.S. Coast Guard has proposed to create permanent safety zones, it's not the first time the maritime agency has conducted live fire training in the Great Lakes.

Jones has authority to establish temporary safety zones, most typically for events like firework displays and air shows. When the Coast Guard received the new machine guns back in January, Jones established 24 temporary safety zones, and safely conducted training sessions with the weapons from January through April 2006.

The Coast Guard announced the training by publishing notice in the Federal Register, Aug. 1, and proceeded with a 30-day public notice period. Public outcry soon followed.

Though attendance was low at the Sturgeon Bay meeting — about 40 people — the eight previous public meetings were attended by large crowds dissatisfied with the quiet notification process.

The U.S. Coast Guard responded by extending the public comment period to 90 days, and scheduling the public meetings.
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