TOPICS > Politics

Low Public Support for Live-fire Drills

December 13, 2006 at 4:35 PM EDT

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: The automatic machine gun stood out on the bow of the Coast Guard boat, and it made its way through Lake Michigan’s choppy waters under gray November skies.

The Coast Guard began mounting the M240 machine gun on its boats as part of an increased security program after 9/11. Then, last summer, the Coast Guard created 34 areas in the Great Lakes to practice shooting live ammunition with the M240s. Rear Admiral John Crowley explained why.

REAR ADM. JOHN CROWLEY, U.S. Coast Guard: The live fire zones are to enable our men and women to train. Training and certification is essential for standardization, which is the foundation for safety and effectiveness of our operations.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The 34 live fire safety zones were temporarily located five miles off shore in all five Great Lakes. Lake Michigan has the most zones, at 14; Lake Superior has seven; Lake Huron, six; Lake Erie, four; and Lake Ontario, three.

Now, Crowley says, the Coast Guard wants the zones made permanent so boaters will remember where they are.

REAR ADM. JOHN CROWLEY: The zones are used typically only a couple times a year for somewhere between two and six hours at a time. We’re estimating that any particular zone is used for under 24 hours during the course of an entire year and the remaining time the mariners’ commercial pleasure alike will have unfettered use for those areas.

Worries about live-fire zones

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Sounds like a good idea, says Fred Poppe, past commodore of the Chicago Yachting Association.

FRED POPPE, Chicago Yachting Association: We're asking the Coast Guard to protect our ports, our harbors, our shoreline facilities, the facilities on the rivers, and the population in general to keep us safe. And, again, you don't do that with a prayer. Somewhere along the line, you need to be able to counter a threat, and that means weapons, and that means trained people behind those weapons.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But many recreational boaters, like Stanley Hill, disagree. The commodore of a Chicago Yacht Club, he enjoys sailing his 32-foot sailboat on Lake Michigan.

STANLEY HILL, Jackson Park Yacht Club: I've got to give the Coast Guard some credit. I'm going to assume that, if they see a sailboat coming into the live fire zone, that they're not going to, you know, shoot off a few rounds. But it could happen; mistakes happen.

I just don't want that to be another possible hazard that I've got to consider on my checklist of things to watch out for when I take my friends, and my family, and my loved ones out for a pleasure cruise. I don't want to be wondering about, "Is there live fire out there?"

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The placement of the live fire zones also worries commercial shippers. Commercial shipping is big business on the Great Lakes. The Shippers' Trade Association says nine of the live fire zones are in or near major shipping lanes. Shippers are willing to support the plan, but want the location of over two-thirds of the live fire zones changed.

Guard responds to safety concerns

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Coast Guard says safety is always its top concern. Boaters would be notified by marine radio -- and perhaps other methods, as well -- for 24 hours in advance of a live fire exercise. And in addition...

REAR ADM. JOHN CROWLEY: As soon as anyone was seen to be intruding into a zone, live fire would stop.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Coast Guard took its case for live fire zones to the public in a series of hearings around the Great Lakes. Most of the concerns expressed were about boaters' safety.

COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: Then you talk about something called a safety zone? Oh, please. You're assuming that there are chain link fence around these safety zones in Lake Michigan?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Many at the public hearings suggested the Coast Guard use land-based firing ranges or simulators, similar to those used for training by airplane pilots, instead of using live ammunition on the lake. But Crowley says neither could duplicate the conditions on the water, especially when it's rough, like the day we went out with the Coast Guard.

REAR ADM. JOHN CROWLEY: The difference with the M240, this mounted automatic weapon is a coordinated activity. It requires the actions of both the boat driver, and the gunner, and a loader, and an aft gunner all working together. That is not simulated by simply shooting at a target at a range onboard shore.

Worries about effect on environment

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But safety on the waters is not the only concern. Some worry about what will end up in the water.

The M240 uses 200 to 600 rounds of lead bullets per minute. That means an estimated 6,720 pounds of lead would be dumped into the lakes every year.

Cameron Davis, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, says that much lead in the water will be harmful.

CAMERON DAVIS, Alliance for the Great Lakes: It's detrimental because lead's a neurotoxin. It's a pollutant. And we've spent a lot of time and a lot of money trying to keep lead and other pollutants out of the lakes. It doesn't make any sense now to go back on that and put more in.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Concern about the quality of Great Lakes water, where 24 million people get their drinking water every day, prompted the Coast Guard to commission a health risk assessment study for the live fire zones.

REAR ADM. JOHN CROWLEY: Our scientists arrived at the conclusion, given standards and calculations that are accepted in not only in the community but with the EPA, that there'd be no elevated risk.

CAMERON DAVIS: Well, I think the study is very flawed. It only takes a look at those issues over a very limited period of time. It may be that the bullets themselves won't cause an elevated risk today, or tomorrow even, but over time there will be a cumulative effect from this practice.

Critics raise other objections

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And Davis says his organization is concerned about more than just the environmental impact of lead bullets.

CAMERON DAVIS: The other is the environmental objection as it relates to the people who love the Great Lakes and care about the Great Lakes. If people are scared to go out on the Great Lakes, they won't care for the Great Lakes. And if they don't care for the Great Lakes, how can we protect them?

So it really is a blending of the social and ecological issues that the Alliance for the Great Lakes is very concerned about.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But caring for the Great Lakes, says Crowley, is what the Coast Guard is all about.

REAR ADM. JOHN CROWLEY: You know, there's a mural outside my office that I see every morning when it comes in. It depicts the Great Lakes as a treasure. And underneath is a slogan: "Guardians of the Great Lakes."

We've really looked at that as a trust, as an honor, to be the guardian of that national treasure.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Coast Guard says it will review all the comments from the three months of public hearings before a decision is made on whether or not to go ahead with the live fire safety zones next year.