Mayors, residents protest live gun training on Great Lakes
Written by Detroit Free Press   
Wednesday, 29 November 2006 14:33

An alliance of 80 Great Lakes mayors in eight states and two Canadian provinces has called on the U.S. Coast Guard to abandon its plans for live machine gun training on the lakes, citing concerns about safety, environmental damage and tourism.

Since the Coast Guard quietly announced plans to create 34 live-fire zones -- all at least 5 miles offshore -- in the Federal Register Aug. 1, boaters, environmentalists and politicians have been in an uproar.

That led to an extension for public comment from Aug. 31 to Nov. 13 and nine Coast Guard hearings around the lakes, attended by about 1,000 people. More than 880 submitted formal comments.

"This has really created tension between U.S. and Canadian mayors," said George Heartwell, mayor of Grand Rapids. "They look at us like gun slinging cowboys south of the border."

Heartwell and the mayors of a number of cities, including Chicago, Toledo, Duluth, Windsor, Toronto and Montreal, oppose the plan and say the training should be done on land or on simulators.

"Police don't practice shooting on city streets," said Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis. "We've been working hard to restore and preserve the Great Lakes. This is a step backwards."

Coast Guard cutters are now armed with machine guns in case of possible terrorist attacks. Canadian boats are not armed.

The Canadian government said it wasn't consulted about the plan. Pollution from lead bullets might violate a water quality agreement between the two countries, officials said in a letter to the Coast Guard.

Offshore waters in the Great Lakes are frequented by cruising recreational and commercial boats and fishing boats trolling for prized salmon, trout and walleyes. Concerns have been raised about whether plans for warnings to recreational boaters would be adequate to alert them to live fire exercises.

A northern Michigan congressman said Democrats, who take leadership positions in the House and Senate next year, could hold hearings or block the zones.

"They darn well better make some changes," growled U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Menominee in the Upper Peninsula. Stupak said he has reservations about the proposal. "This is a major change and there is no doubt they tried to sneak this underneath the radar," he said.

In his district, Stupak said, he's especially concerned about the safety of the passenger ferry that runs between Charlevoix and Beaver Island on Lake Michigan.

The Coast Guard does have supporters. Roger Bergman, mayor of Grand Haven, a Lake Michigan coastline community that holds an annual summer Coast Guard festival, said his community is worried about security.

"We rely on the Coast Guard to protect us," he said. "They need to be equipped and know how to fire the weapons they have."

U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Republican from Holland, noted in comments to the Coast Guard that during the Super Bowl, which was held in Detroit earlier this year, the Guard had to fly in special security teams to patrol the Detroit River because local guardsmen hadn't been trained to use the guns.

He supports the live-firing plan but with changes:

  • Fewer zones.
  • Using an alternative to lead bullets.
  • No live firing from May 15 to Sept. 15.
  • More environmental studies.

The Guard's plan would create practice zones across 2,500 square miles of the lakes for training on 7.62mm weapons, which were added to cutters after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Each zone would be used a few times a year for several hours.

Training would be with lead bullets encased in copper jackets. A preliminary study said that the lead would not damage the environment over a 5-year period. Environmental groups said the zones will be permanent, so a longer-term study is needed.

The Michigan Environmental Council said the training would dump more than 3 tons of lead into the lakes annually, nearly double the lead that industries discharge into Michigan waters each year.

The Coast Guard's own environmental study said that lead, which is a neurotoxin and a probable carcinogen, likely would dissolve over several years and end up in the lakes' sediment, where it might be ingested by plants and animals at the bottom of the food chain. The Michigan Environmental Council said there already has been an alarming decline in tiny bottom-dwelling organisms that form the base of the Great Lakes food chain and it would be unwise to introduce more toxic substances to the lake bottom when scientists still don't understand why the microscopic organisms are disappearing.

"It would be ironic if, in the name of protecting our borders from terrorism, the terrorists convince us to poison our own lakes without ever having set foot in the Great Lakes basin," said spokesman Hugh McDiarmid Jr.

Rear Admiral John Crowley Jr., the Cincinnati-based commander for the Great Lakes, promised to review the comments thoroughly. There is no timeline for a decision.
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