Range misses mark with environment

The closure of the decades-old firing range at Coyote Point in five years will leave many tons of lead bullets in an adjacent hillside, an environmental hazard that will require a large-scale cleanup, environmental groups and county officials said.

San Mateo County supervisors would like to see the range closed in the next five years, said Samuel Hertzberg, senior planner with the county’s Parks Department, because they said the park is an inappropriate area for a firing range.

For the last 45 years, bullets that have missed their mark at the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office firing range, used by several Peninsula law enforcement agencies as well as members of the public, have bored into the dirt hill behind the range. Lead is a highly toxic metal that causes a range of health effects, from learning disabilities to death, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

And there’s no shortage of lead around the targets at Coyote Point, said Sgt. Tim Reed, who has run the facility for the last three years.

“That dirt hill is more of a dirt and lead hill now,” he said.

But environmental groups and county health officials debate whether the lead contamination in the hillside is a cause for concern.

Dean Peterson, director of Environmental Health for the county, said until a cleanup occurs, there should be no cause for worry.

“Lead does not move very well in the environment,” he said. “It’s not going to be leached into the water table.”

According to federal law, firing ranges are allowed to pump in as many lead bullets into the surrounding area as long as it’s operational. If the range does shut down, the dirt will be considered hazardous material, and a major environmental analysis and mitigation will be necessary. That process that will be overseen by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, Peterson said.

Richard Wiles, executive director of Environmental Working Group of Washington, D.C., said firing ranges are one of the biggest lead pollutants in the country, putting nearly 9 million pounds of lead into the environment each year.

“You have the potential for water contamination, lead runoff, soil contamination, lead-contaminated dust blowing around,” he said.

Sejan Choksi of Bay Area environmental watchdog group Baykeeper said firing ranges are not covered under the federal Clean Water Act and are therefore difficult to litigate against.

Nonetheless, she said, the community should be concerned, particularly because the firing range is only a few hundred yards away from the Bay.

Wiles said an environmental analysis would be appropriate.

“It’s never too soon to investigate the situation, given the amount of lead that’s there,” he said.

kworth@examiner.com

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