7 no 3, 1999
NY Gun Range Contends With Perils of Lead
By Joseph Berger, 2nd August 1993.
Removal May Cost Over $2 Million
CORTLANDT, NY --- The hills around here are the backwoods of Westchester County, a place where the trim suburban streets seem to thin out and a terrain emerges that is closer to the rawness of the Adirondacks.
It is here that the county government 31 years ago chose to locate a public firing range that defies the genteel golf and tennis image the nation has of Westchester. Over the years, hunters and shooting enthusiasts have pierced countless bull's-eyes and shattered innumerable clay pigeons, and their spent ammunition has dropped a mother lode of lead in the moist black soil of the range.
That lead --- 500 tons by some estimates --- has now been called a danger to the health of children and wildlife by Federal and state authorities, and it has become the center of a local dispute that is echoed in many of the 8,000 recreational ranges elsewhere in the nation. Not so far from Cortlandt, the Rodman's Neck range in the Bronx and the former Remington Arms range in Stratford, Connecticut, have also come under official or judicial scrutiny because of the lead that shooting enthusiasts leave behind.
Here, in this town near Peekskill, the debate has pitted parents with no particular affection for the sport, including many of the newer commuting families, against the older rural families who have a tradition of hunting and shooting. And it has pitted environmentalists, who look out for the Hudson River's nurturing wetlands, against the government officials in the county seat 15 miles to the south in White Plains.
Tradition of Shooting
The environmentalists contend that the lead is seeping into the groundwater, ponds and marshes that feed the animal life of the Blue Mountain Reservation, a 1,500-acre range, known officially as the Sportman Center.
More ominously, they say, substantial quantities of lead have been found in the sediment of a stream a half-mile from the range and next to an elementary school. Schoolchildren sometimes play in the stream, hunting for tadpoles.
"I find it appalling that the enjoyment of sportsmen outweighs the health of young children," Joan Ann Mazza, the president of the Furnace Woods School parents association, said in a letter to Andrew P. O'Rourke, the County Executive.
Damage From Lead
A suit brought by Sean Bevenin, a one time shooting enthusiast who is in a custody fight with his wife, Lisa, the range's cashier, contends that his two daughters now have double the normal levels of lead in their bloodstreams because they lived for a time in an apartment used by range employees. Lead causes brain and other neurological damage and can diminish IQ's.
The county officials maintain the children acquired the lead from toy animals. And while the county has not conducted testing, no student at the school has been found to have elevated levels of lead by a personal paediatrician.
The county's parks and health commissioner also argue that the perils have been exaggerated, and that none of the lead poses an imminent danger to either wildlife or human beings.
Still, the county was ordered in December by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency to come up with a plan to remove the lead, and it hired a consultant to recommend ways to do so without further disturbing the area's ecology.
Last week the consultant confirmed there were high levels of lead on the site. The consultant said removing lead would probably cost taxpayers more than $2 million.
"There is a potential problem and the county recognizes that and is moving forward to remove the lead," said Dr. Mark S. Rapoport, the county's Health Commissioner. "The question is whether there is an imminent danger."
Concerns About Cost
In an area with deep fondness for guns and hunting, no one is calling for the range to be shut down. But one unspoken concern is that the eventual cost of removing lead on a systematic basis will make the price of sustaining the range prohibitive. Operating the range now costs the county $125,000 a year.
"If we close the center, people will be hunting in the reservation," warned Clare Palermo Flower, Mr. O'Rourke's spokeswoman.
The dispute has been given added luster by the presence of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the nephew of the late President and a professor at Pace University in White Plains who specializes in environmental law.
He represents Courtlandt Watch, an association of home owners, and the Hudson Riverkeeper's Fund, an environmental group, in a suit against the county filed last July in Federal District Court that contends the lead violates the Clean Water Act and other Federal Statutes.
"You don't leave this stuff on the ground for 50 years," Mr. Kennedy said "We now know that even infinitesimal levels of lead exposure cause permanent retardation in children."
The dispute also threatens to become a local campaign issue since Mr. O'Rourke, the county executive, is expected to run for re-election and one challenger is likely to be Assemblyman Richard L Brodsky, the new head of the Assembly environmental committee.
"The county has been dragging its feet for years," Mr. Brodsky said of the lead on the range. "They know this may set a national precedent for handling this kind of place."
The range, hidden in dense woods, opened in 1962 and draws more than 200 shooters on a weekend day. It is actually several ranges --- for large-bore rifles, small-bore rifles, pistols, and trap and skeet.
The ground of the trap and skeet range, where the Frisbee-like orange clay pigeons are catapulted into the air as a speeding target for shotgun shooters, is covered with lead pellets that look like caviar. Over time, the lead crumbles in contact with the soil.
An investigation by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation last spring concluded that the level of lead in some of the soil was extremely high and 'poses a threat to humans or wildlife."
The agency also directed the county to warn parents and schoolchildren of the presence of lead near the school, which the county did by letter on January 25.
Mr Rapoport says that since the lead is confined to the muddy bed of the stream, the danger to schoolchildren is, for the moment, remote. "If a child were to crawl into the stream and take a handful of sediment and put it into his mouth, that would be a problem," he said.
But parents say that scenario may not be so far-fetched.
"How many kids do you know of that play in the water before lunch and then wash their hands before they eat?" said Mrs. Mazza, the mother of three.
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