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Machine-gun training creates uproar

The Coast Guard proposes 34 permanent safety zones for live-ammo firing ranges on the Great Lakes

The Coast Guard proposes 34 permanent safety zones for live-ammo firing ranges on the Great Lakes

Boaters, anglers, environmentalists and politicians from the Great Lakes region voiced concern this fall about a proposal by the Coast Guard to create 34 permanent security zones on the lakes to be used for firearms training exercises.

“The U.S. Coast Guard’s rationale is absurd,” says Elizabeth May, Canada’s Green Party leader, in a statement. “Canada is not harboring terrorists planning a marine assault on the United States across the Great Lakes. The notion is ludicrous.”

The Coast Guard this summer proposed to create the security zones, also called water training areas, where Coast Guard personnel would conduct live-fire weapons training exercises on the water using M-240B machine guns. Capable of firing between 200 and 600 rounds per minute, the guns would be mounted on and fired from Coast Guard cutters and small boats. The zones would be closed to recreational boating traffic while the training sessions are active.

“Our men and women need to be trained in order to perform properly in their missions,” says Coast Guard spokesman Robert Lanier. “Throughout the Coast Guard there has been an equipment upgrade making the M-240B machine gun standard. This proposal is to be in alignment with that initiative. In order for us to be proficient in using the machine guns we need to practice firing them in the environment we will be working in.”

The proposed security zones would be at least five miles from shore and would be used two or three times per year — primarily during off-peak boating months — for three or four hours at a time, the Coast Guard says. There will be no set schedule for the training sessions. The Coast Guard would alert boaters in advance over VHF and through media announcements about where and when the zones would be active.

“In the northern regions of the Lakes, boaters can’t use marine radios; they’re using cell phones instead,” explains Dan Thomas, president of the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council. Thomas believes the Coast Guard would need to do more to make sure boaters know where and when the security zones are being used.

“Notice should be issued days in advance using not only press releases but announcements on weather band radio, too,” he says.

The Coast Guard announced the proposal Aug. 1 in a notice published in the Federal Register. After boaters and other Great Lakes residents complained that they had insufficient information about the proposal, the Coast Guard extended the public comment period to Nov. 13. During that time the agency held nine public sessions — in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — to provide people with more information and to hear people’s input. Comments and concerns also could be posted on the Department of Transportation’s Docket Management Web site (, docket No. 25767).

Thomas was among the more than 150 people who attended the public information meeting Nov. 1 in Waukegan, Ill. “There were more people at this meeting than at any of the other meetings to date,” he says. “But so far I have yet to hear a rational reason why we need these zones. If they are necessary I think we need to reconsider the number of zones that have been proposed.”

The Coast Guard says 34 security zones are required to train personnel on the waters near their respective bases. Of those 34, 14 zones are proposed on Lake Michigan alone. “I don’t know if any number [of security zones] will satisfy everyone,” Thomas says. “Whatever the number, I recommend they be moved further offshore, where feasible, to increase boater safety and reduce people’s concerns.”

“Machine guns, live-fire zones and terrorist attacks are all firsts for recreational boaters,” Ned Dikmen, chairman of the Great Lakes Boating Federation, says in a statement. “We must keep in mind that boaters’ safety is of paramount importance, since they can unexpectedly find themselves caught in the line of fire.”

A second Coast Guard boat will patrol and enforce the security zones when firearms training is under way. “Officers on the safety boat will use radar and their sight to make sure no boater crosses into the line of fire,” says spokesman Lanier. “Keeping everyone safe is our top priority.”

Environmentalists are concerned about the exercises because of the lead bullets that would wind up in the lakes. “We recognize the need for boater security in a changing world but have reservations about a plan that introduces a significant new source of toxic metals into the Great Lakes without any environmental impact study or long-term analysis,” says Hugh McDiarmid, communications director of the Michigan Environmental Council.

The Coast Guard hired a third party to conduct a health risk assessment associated with the proposal, but a number of environmentalist groups were calling for a more in-depth, long-term study. McDiarmid suggests the Coast Guard explore alternatives to lead bullets.

“Are there non-lead training bullets that can be used? Lasers?” he asks. “Perhaps a cap on the total tonnage of lead the Guard will pledge to stay below to ensure that pollution will not escalate in future years?” McDiarmid says he worries that increased amounts of lead, a neurotoxin and cancer-causing substance, will pollute the water and damage the food chain.

The Coast Guard’s final decision about the proposal was expected after the agency considers the comments it received online and at the public information meetings, Lanier says. “I can’t say how long that process will take, but I can guarantee that no weapons training will happen on the Lakes until the decision is announced,” he says. “We will be sure to make a robust outreach to residents once the decision is made.”