Outdoor firing ranges: A regulatory dead zone

Gun Rights

This much was learned from the state-mandated cleanups of two abandoned firing ranges near the Western North Carolina city of Brevard and the federal indictment of a city official accused of mishandling hazardous waste from one of them: Outdoor firing ranges exist in a regulatory dead zone.

They need no state or federal permit to open or operate. They are subject neither to routine inspection nor requirements that they notify regulators when they close.

This lack of oversight — and the resulting lack of documentation — makes it difficult to answer the question of whether the lead from accumulated ammunition migrates into the environment or drinking water.

These circumstances, in turn, raise more questions: What is the justification for this limited oversight; and are the federal recommendations that guide range operators effective at controlling the highly toxic heavy metal’s potential migration?

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In 1993, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York set a precedent that has steered federal environmental policy ever since. In deciding a case about an outdoor firing range in Connecticut, the court was hampered by federal law that defines solid waste differently in different sections. It is so convoluted, one judge wrote, that it reminded him of the reality-bending children’s classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

Ultimately, the ruling found ranges can be subject to lawsuits and government mandates only after lead accumulates over a long but unspecified period of time and meets the legal definition of hazardous waste.

And because firing a gun is considered the ongoing use of a product rather than the discarding of solid waste, ranges don’t need the permits required of, for example, factories generating similar amounts of toxic debris.

As long as nobody complains, ranges are subject merely to the guidance of the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Best Management Practices for Lead at Outdoor Firing Ranges.” This document, published in 2005 with input from the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation firearms industry group, has not been updated in 15 years.

Brevard followed these practices, at least in recent years, said Police Chief Phil Harris. But the examples of the city’s ranges show the limits of the EPA’s recommendations in controlling accumulations of hazardous waste at firing ranges.

The firing range at the city’s wastewater treatment plant on the French Broad River was in operation when Harris arrived in 2010, he said. In the six years before the city was forced to close the range to make room for an expansion of the plant, he said it carefully documented the number of shooters who used it and the amount of ammunition discharged, just as the EPA document recommends.

The city also planted vegetation to control runoff, a suggested practice, and measured the acidity of the soil to determine that it did not need to be neutralized. Tests of runoff from the range found “no indication of lead leaching or deteriorating,” Harris said.

On the other hand, the city did not follow one of EPA’s key recommendations, periodically sifting lead from the soil in the range’s backstops. That, he said, was because not enough of it had accumulated.

The EPA suggests removing lead after 100,000 rounds of ammunition have been fired in each lane. By the time the range closed, Harris said, he estimated shooters at the range had fired 15,000 rounds per lane.

Although the amount of lead was not enough to trigger an EPA-recommended removal, it was enough to generate a leachate reading of 129 parts per million of lead in soil from the range’s backstop — more than 25 times the federal hazardous waste threshold of 5 parts per million. 

David Lutz, the city’s public works director, is accused of ordering city workers, who were not provided protective equipment, to move this highly toxic waste without the required documentation and to temporarily store it at the city public works center, which is not permitted to receive such material. It was later deposited in a nearby public landfill, which was not approved for the disposal of hazardous waste.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation encourages its members to follow the guidelines, said public affairs director Mark Olivia, and pushed for the passage of a 2019 law that directs money from the federal excise tax on ammunition and firearms into public shooting ranges that emphasize responsible practices.

Ben Solomon, an environmental specialist with the state Wildlife Resources Commission, said the agency does just that. At the eight ranges it operates either alone or in cooperation with counties, the agency closely follows EPA guidelines, including regularly sifting out lead, in part to set an example.

“We want to put the best foot forward and be a little more proactive,” he said.

But these recommendations are not requirements and not even veteran environmental activists, including MountainTrue’s Green Riverkeeper Gray Jernigan and French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson, knew of any groups that had taken up the cause.

Meanwhile, under current state and federal policy, it is likely only a tiny percentage of ranges will face close regulatory scrutiny. 

Currently, for example, the NSSF has counted about 150 outdoor, nonmilitary ranges in North Carolina, but the total is likely an undercount because it includes only ranges that volunteer to be listed.

A spokeswoman at the state Department of Environmental Quality was pressed last month to recall recent cases similar to Brevard.

She came up with only one: the voluntary remediation of a range at Southwestern Community College in Jackson County, bringing the total number of DEQ cases involving outdoor ranges to precisely three.

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