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Lead contamination

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Lead contamination at gun clubs and firing ranges is an environmental problem that requires focused attention. Why is lead a concern at gun clubs and firing ranges?

According to the EPA’s Best Management Practices:

It is estimated that approximately four percent (4%) (80,000 tons/year) of all the lead produced in the United States in the late 1990’s (about 2 million tons/year), is made into bullets and shot. Taking into account rounds used off-range, and rounds used at indoor ranges, it is clear that much of this 160,000,000 pounds of lead shot/bullets finds its way into the environment at ranges.

A report form the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies indicates a high risk of transport of lead in suspension in areas less than ¼ mile from a body of water.

EPA – Best Management Practices states the following site characteristics that may lead to increased potential for lead pollution:

  • Lead reacts more readily and may become more mobile under acidic (pH < 6) conditions. In general, soils in the eastern US tend to be acidic.
  • During and after periods of rain, stormwater runoff may wash lead particles or lead compounds off the range. If there are surface water bodies such as lakes, rivers, or wetlands downgradient, the potential for lead to adversely affect the surrounding environment is even greater.
  • On-site or contiguous surface water bodies: VERY high potential for contamination when shot fall zone is located over or adjacent to water; increased wildlife exposure; increased lead dissolution.

The following photo, from Prime Hook shooting range in Delaware, illustrates the extent that lead shot can accumulate at shooting ranges that do not use proper lead containment practices:

Metals contamination

Not only is lead a major source of gun club/firing range contamination, metals can also pose a contamination problem. Additional metals that may be found at firing ranges include copper, nickel, antimony, zinc, barium, cadmium and arsenic.

The type and amount of munitions used at a shooting range along with the environmental setting and operational history greatly influence the potential for metals contamination and its migration.

Soil contamination

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Although outdoor firing ranges put more lead into the environment than nearly any other major industrial sector in the United States, they remain almost entirely unregulated. In just two years a typical outdoor firing range can have lead contamination equivalent to a five-acre Superfund site.

Lead weathering generally occurs whenever lead pellets come into contact with soil and exposed to air and water.All of the metallic Pb in a pellet will be ultimately transformed into particulate and ionic lead species and will be dispersed into the environment to some degree.

Wildlife concerns

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While it’s not often mentioned, wildlife can be greatly affected by spent lead shot. The following example illustrates the destructiveness that lead shot can cause:

Southern Lakes Trap and Skeet Club Site, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, et al.

In 1992, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began an investigation to determine the cause of death of over 200 Canada geese. The geese died as a result of acute lead poisoning after ingesting lead shot, which research indicated came from the Southern Lakes Trap and Skeet Club.

Best Management Practices

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The EPA has developed a set of Best Management Practices for gun clubs and firing ranges.

Lead management practices at ranges across the United States remain inconsistent. Some range owners/operators have examined the impact of range operations on human health and the environment and have implemented procedures to manage and/or remove accumulated lead from ranges. Other range owners/operators are just beginning to characterize and investigate their ranges in order to design an environmental risk prevention and/or remediation program(s) specific to their sites. A third group of ranges has adopted a “wait and see” policy – taking no action until specifically required to do so by law or clear guidance is in place. Finally, a fourth, small, but important group of range owners/operators
remain unaware of lead’s potential to harm human health and the environment, and of existing federal and state laws.

To manage lead, many owners and operators have successfully implemented Best Management Practices (BMPs) at their ranges. These range owners and operators have realized many benefits from sound lead management including:
- stewardship of the environment, natural resources and wildlife,
- improved community relations,
- improved aesthetics of the range/good business practices,
- increased profitability through recovery/ recycling lead, a valuable and finite resource, and
- reduced public scrutiny.

Groundwater contamination

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Lead can leach into soil and contaminate groundwater. According to the EPA’s Best Management Practices:

Dissolved lead can migrate through soils to groundwater

Acidic rainwater may dissolve weathered lead compounds. A portion of the lead may be transported in solution in groundwater beneath land surfaces. Groundwater may transport lead in solution from the higher topographic areas to the lower areas such as valleys, where it is discharged and becomes part of the surface water flow. If the water flowing underground passes through rocks containing calcium, magnesium, iron, or other minerals more soluble then lead, or through minerals that raise the pH of the water, then the lead in solution may be replaced (removed) from the solution by these other metals.

Lead shot entering a water body substantially increases the potential risk of contaminating surface and groundwater which, in turn, threatens human health and the environment. Finally, as New York Athletic Club, Remington Arms and similar cases show, neighbors have the most leverage when range activity affects wetlands and waterways.