Coast Guard drops plan for Great Lakes target range

December 19, 2006|By Michael Hawthorne | Michael Hawthorne,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- The idea of turning the Great Lakes into a giant shooting range didn't sit well with boaters, anglers or politicians, especially since it almost happened with little public notice.

Surrendering to a barrage of complaints, the U.S. Coast Guard yesterday dropped plans to conduct routine target practice with boat-mounted machine guns in 34 areas throughout the lakes.

Coast Guard officials said they made a mistake by not adequately informing the public about their proposal, which was so unusual it required changes to a treaty with Canada that dates to the War of 1812.

Although the Coast Guard will keep M-240B machine guns mounted on its cutters and small boats, officials said the crews won't be shooting live ammunition at floating targets in the lakes anytime soon, if ever.

"We are committed to addressing the concerns that training be safe, preserve the diverse uses of the lakes and protect the environment," said Rear Adm. John E. Crowley, Jr., commander of the Coast Guard district that oversees the Great Lakes.

Boating groups and members of Congress had raised concerns that recreational sailors might unwittingly cross into the training zones or get hit by stray bullets. The 7.62 mm weapons can fire up to 600 rounds a minute and send the bullets more than 2 miles away.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, noted that firing up to 430,000 lead bullets a year on the lakes would add more pollution to an already fragile ecosystem. The Coast Guard would have become one of the largest sources of toxic lead dumped into the lakes, which supply millions of people in the U.S. and Canada with drinking water.

Crowley reiterated a need to train his crews for potential terrorist attacks with live-fire exercises two or three times a year. But he and other Coast Guard officials hinted that any future training would involve fewer areas or possibly take place outside the Great Lakes.

"We know we need to better engage the American people on this issue," said Lt. Greg Fondran, a spokesman in the Coast Guard's Cleveland office. "We didn't meet their expectations."

The Coast Guard began the live-fire training earlier this year with little notice, conducting 24 exercises. After witnesses inquired about the sound of gunfire, angry mayors and other public officials in the U.S. and Canada began complaining they had not been informed.

In August, the Coast Guard submitted rules that would have formally set aside 14 live-fire zones on Lake Michigan as well as seven zones on Lake Superior, six on Lake Huron, four on Lake Erie and three on Lake Ontario.

Because the Coast Guard now is part of the Department of Homeland Security, it wasn't required to hold public hearings or study potential environmental impacts. Officials were poised to make the rules final when members of Congress stepped in, forcing the Coast Guard to accept public comments and hastily organize hearings in neighboring areas.

More than a thousand comments came in, and most were negative. Many came from charter boat captains who complained they had little information about the exercises and noted that some of the training zones were near prime fishing spots.

Michael Hawthorne writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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