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When MountainTrue organized opposition to a Henderson County Sheriff’s Office firing range near Saluda in 2018, it was not just because of obvious environmental concerns: Would highly toxic lead seep from the range into the nearby, pristine Green River? Could it be absorbed by plants and wildlife? Did it pose a long-term threat to public drinking supplies?
The environmental group also fought the project near the Henderson-Polk county line because the lack of regulation of outdoor firing ranges made these questions almost impossible to answer.
“The problem with lead is there are just so many ways it can get into the environment and find an exposure pathway to humans,” said Gray Jernigan, MountainTrue’s Green Riverkeeper, who helped convince the Henderson County Commission to abandon plans for the project.
“To us, there was just too much uncertainty.”
Scenarios presented as future possibilities in Henderson County are already pressing in nearby Brevard, a city of 8,000 a few miles to the west in Transylvania County.
Brevard’s public works director, David Lutz, is due to stand trial in January on federal charges of mishandling soil from an abandoned Police Department firing range measured at more than 25 times the federal hazardous waste threshold.
Meanwhile, the state has ordered the city to clean up the remaining lead-laden soil at this range, on the French Broad River, as well as at an older city shooting range on otherwise pristine Cathey’s Creek, which is the sole source of the city’s drinking water.
These mandates came after years of lead accumulation and only because somebody spoke up, in this case a neighbor of one of the ranges who complained to the state.
Someone speaking up is about the only way cleanups can be mandated, according to federal environmental policy that says government agencies can order remediation but cannot regulate them as producers of solid waste.
“This broad exemption from environmental statutes is producing thousands of highly contaminated toxic waste sites at firing ranges across the country,” according to a 2001 report from the Environmental Working Group that Jernigan submitted to support his opposition to the Saluda range.
The date of that report is another, indirect, symptom of this exemption. Without the permit applications, inspection reports and test results generated by regulation, scientists and environmentalists have little documentation on which to base research or position papers.
As a result, Jernigan was forced to rely on reports that were more than a decade old or from foreign countries.
But these studies raise issues that remain relevant over time and distance, including the extreme toxicity of lead and the large amounts of it that can be pumped into firing range “backstops” — the soil piled behind targets to catch fired ammunition.
“Lead is considered the number one environmental threat to children’s health by the federal government” and, even “at very low levels, is linked to subtle developmental delays and reduced IQ in children,” the Working Group report said, echoing the current guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that any level of lead in the blood of children is unsafe.
A conservative estimate of use at the roughly 1,800 outdoor ranges in the U.S. “would put nearly nine million pounds of lead into the environment per year,” the Working Group report said.
The activity at ranges and the number of them has likely grown significantly in recent years with shooting’s increasing popularity, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation industry group.
Concentrations of lead in range backstops globally have routinely been found to exceed 10,000 parts per million, according to a 2002 report from a researcher at New Zealand’s Lincoln University. By comparison, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality requires remediation of soil measured at more than 270 parts per million of lead.
That report also addresses the more complicated question of how much of that lead migrates into the environment. Typically, about 90% of lead at ranges is contained in stable lead slugs, the report said. But much of the remaining 10%, corroded by rain and chemicals in the soil, can make its way into groundwater.
And given the often high overall concentrations of lead in the soil, the Lincoln University report says, “The corrosion products represent a large reservoir of highly soluble lead.”
Testing in North Carolina, though far from comprehensive, has revealed little evidence that significant amounts of lead from ranges have seeped into ground or surface waters.
DEQ’s routine monitoring of rivers does not sample for lead or other heavy metals, said Anna Gurney, spokeswoman for the agency’s Division of Water Resources. The division’s random sampling program, which does test for metals, has not surveyed streams near the few range sites, including those owned by Brevard, that have been scrutinized by the state because of known lead contamination.
But the city has tested runoff from both sites and found it free of lead, as was drinking water measured at taps throughout the city.
Avner Vengosh, a Duke University professor of geochemistry and water quality, led a study that tested groundwater at hundreds of sites throughout North Carolina over the last decade. Lead shows up far less often than some other toxins, including arsenic, which in North Carolina is often naturally occurring.
“We don’t commonly see lead in groundwater unless it’s coming from people’s pipes, which is a different ballgame,” he said.
Soil and rainwater are usually not acidic enough to dissolve lead, he said. Lead also quickly settles out of both ground and surface water because of its lack of buoyancy, said Shea Tuberty, a biology professor at Appalachian State University, and a past president of the Carolina Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.
“It’s called a heavy metal for a reason,” he said.
Along with the volume of water in large rivers, this property makes it unlikely that, for example, Brevard’s abandoned range on the French Broad would lead to significant contamination of the river’s water, especially miles downstream.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the old paradigm, ‘Dilution is the solution to pollution,’” he said. “With lead, it works pretty well.”
Not just the water
But water is not lead’s only pathway to humans. Tuberty and his students have tested for lead in both the water and aquatic life of the Broad River near Mooresboro, to the east in Cleveland County, as part of an ongoing study of contamination from a zinc recycling plant and an old Duke Energy coal ash pond.
Because of their feeding patterns, sunfish showed especially high concentrations of lead, as much as 2.3 parts per million, or several times the level considered safe for human consumption.
Lead that settles on the riverbed is taken up by algae, which is consumed by snails and tiny fingernail clams, a favorite food of sunfish, which, alarmingly, are a favorite game fish of young, novice anglers.
“If you’re using a Zebco with a bobber and a weight, that’s the fish you’re going to catch,” he said.
What does all this say about the hazard of lead in the soil of range sites such as Brevard’s?
“You can’t just say, there’s lead in the ground, so this is the worst thing ever,” he said, “but you can’t assume there’s no impact, ever.”
The path to improvement
There’s one upside to the discovery of lead-tainted soil at Brevard’s sites: It might raise awareness of the potential for impact and start to shed light on the extent of it.
The investigation already highlighted the potential for contamination in the soil at firing ranges. Even after the removal of the soil with the highest lead concentration from the Broad River site, some of the remaining soil there, as well as at the older abandoned range on Cathey’s Creek, was measured at above the state’s remediation standard.
The city recently approved $451,000 to complete the cleanup of these sites. As this work proceeds, the state will require the city’s consultant to regularly test lead levels in the river and creek, providing at least a partial picture of the potential for lead to seep from the soil.
As Lutz’s case progresses, Jernigan also anticipates testimony and documents will fill in more gaps in the public’s knowledge of how lead accumulates at ranges and the danger presented by contaminated soil.
“This reveals that there is a lot we just don’t know about this issue,” Jernigan said.