Group sounds off on live fire proposal
Written by Grand Haven Tribune   
Friday, 08 December 2006 13:05

About a dozen opponents of the Coast Guard's plan to set up live firing zones on the Great Lakes braved slick roads Thursday night to attend a brainstorming session at the Spring Lake Holiday Inn.Attorney Marc Fink of Duluth, Minn., who is threatening to file a lawsuit against the Coast Guard unless they comply with federal environmental laws and release more information, was guest speaker.

"We would sue under the Clean Water Act," said Fink, who is working with the Duluth-based Citizens for Environmental Enforcement. "You can't discharge pollution into a water body without a permit. I sent notice (of intent) to the Coast Guard in mid-October. We're certainly open to other organizations joining any potential lawsuit."

Under the notice Fink filed, the Coast Guard has 60 days to provide more detailed information on permits and available alternative training zone areas.

Under quiet wrap, Coast Guard officials in August announced plans to set up 34 designated "safety zones" in all five of the Great Lakes. The areas, one of which is five miles offshore of Grand Haven stretching north to Muskegon, are proposed to be used for onboard machine gun training.

After the plan made the news in late August, just days before the Federal Register notice was to expire, the public comment period was extended until Nov. 13.

Fink said he recently learned the Coast Guard began machine gun training on the Great Lakes in January, with no public notice or comment period.

"They had 24 training exercises on the Great Lakes in 2006," said Fink. He said four of those machine gun exercises occurred on Lake Michigan.

Spring Lake physician and attorney Elliot Grysen, who organized Thursday's session, surmised "not a person in this room is anti-Coast Guard."

"We all love the Coast Guard, but we wanted to get more answers," he said. "We want to be safe and secure, but we want Lake Michigan to be safe and secure."

Many in attendance Thursday echoed those sentiments, citing concerns such as lead contamination, noise, accidental shootings and the unknown effects of long-term pollution.

The Coast Guard recently commissioned a scientific study on the environmental impact of up to 7,000 pounds of lead that would be generated from the proposed training exercises, but the study only projected five years.

Spring Lake resident Dick Brown said the risk is too great and could far outweigh the reward.

"I certainly want the Coast Guard to be a good protection agency, but I think there are alternatives," he said. "How about using virtual reality training? We ought to use technology so they can gain their skills. We need to protect the environment."

Spring Lake resident Wallace Obits said he's a salmon fisherman and he's concerned about unknowingly trolling into a firing zone.

"Maybe the charter boats know where these areas are, but I don't know where they are," he said. "If I troll to Muskegon, I may be in a zone, or I may not be. If there are skipping shells out there, I could be in harm's way."

Officials from the Ninth Coast Guard District office, which covers the Great Lakes region, said the live ammunition training would be conducted with safety in mind and that crews would broadcast regular announcements on marine radio channel 16 to alert boaters to periodic exercises.

Lt. Matt Merriman, a member of the Ninth District legal staff, said precautions will be taken before training begins.

"This is a mission that the president has given," Merriman said. "We need to be prepared for anything, and the only way we can be prepared is to train our troops. We're doing this as safely as possible and we'll make sure the area is clear before we begin any exercises. We'll let the public know as soon as we know it's going to be done.

Cmdr. Gus Wulfkuhle, chief of the Ninth District's enforcement branch, anticipates "safety zone" portions of the Great Lakes will be off limits to boaters on a limited basis — perhaps only five times a year for each lake.

Of the 34 proposed zones, 14 will be in Lake Michigan, according to Wulfkuhle.

"We'll be training with M-240-B machine guns," he said, adding that about 3,000 bullets will be fired in a 2- to 3-hour-long training session. "What we're attempting to do and proposing to establish are water training areas in fixed areas. When we need to do training we would activate them."

The commander said when target shooting is not in session, the "safety zone" areas would carry no restrictions.

"The water would be there for boating and swimming," Wulfkuhle said. "Only when the safety zone is activated is it off limits. If you have a favorite fishing hole, 99.9 percent of the time you should be able to go back to it as long as we're not training."

Although there is no set time schedule or calendar for machine gun training, Ninth District Recreational Boating Specialist Frank Jennings said boaters need to be aware of their latitude and longitude.

"When safety zones are in effect, local boaters will have to avoid the area or face the possibility of being boarded by the Coast Guard and cited for violating the zones," Jennings said.

Fink insists the public deserves much more information than what the Coast Guard is providing — particularly compliance with federal environmental requirements.

"I have a meeting with the Coast Guard attorneys next week," the Duluth attorney said. "We're still in that 60-day period for the Coast Guard to answer some questions and come into compliance. They need to follow the (permitting) procedure set up by Congress."
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