An estimated 160 million pounds of lead is shaped into bullets and pellets each year, representing 4% of all the lead used in the United States.
A significant but unknown portion of this ammunition, made from a known toxic metal, finds its way into the environment at thousands of outdoor firing ranges, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Some of these sites in Utah are now undergoing costly cleanups at taxpayer expense where decades of gunfire have left soils saturated with lead on publicly owned properties. The costliest is taking place at a former shooting range in Parleys Canyon, sitting a half mile uphill from a reservoir that provides drinking water to Salt Lake City.
Starting in 1969, the Police Mutual Aid Association (PMAA) operated a firing range in the canyon, where police officers honed their marksmanship with handguns, rifles and shotguns, dispersing countless nuggets of lead into the watershed. The range operated on part of a 318-acre city-owned property under a lease that expired four years ago.
In a controversial decision, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall declined to continue allowing the site to be used as a firing range, arguing the time had come to restore and preserve the land.
“We have been particularly concerned about the extent of lead contamination from the accumulated gunshot over the half century of use. Unfortunately, it appears that none of the gunshot was cleaned up over the 50 years of operation and much of the property is contaminated with lead,” she Mendenhall wrote in 2021 memo sharing the conclusions of an analysis of the site.
“The results of the work show very high levels of lead and high levels of leachability of the lead that is present in the soil,” the mayor wrote. “It appears that some of the lead shot has broken down; now there are high concentrations of lead dust in the ground and in the building associated with the range.”
Back in 2019, the PMAA decided against renewing its lease because of wildfire risks, but wound up leaving the city on the hook for removing tons of lead embedded in the soil at a cost that could exceed $4 million, depending on which method is used, documents show. The cleanup will be far more costly than what the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, SITLA, plans to spend remediating an old shooting range at a former Boy Scout camp in the Tushar Mountains.
While the Parleys range is much more accessible than the remote mountain camp, the impacted area is much larger, 12 acres versus 2 acres. And the city wants to clean it to an extremely high standard since the site is so close to Mountain Dell Reservoir and a water treatment plant, according to Laura Briefer, the city’s Public Utilities director.
“Because we want to meet the human-health and environmental-impact goals associated with water resources and habitat,” Briefer said, “the recommendation was to excavate and stabilize [the soil] so that it’s ready for non-hazardous treatment and disposal rather than leaving it on site.”
The cost estimate ranges between $1.25 million and $1.8 million, depending on how much soil needs to be treated.
According to a list maintained by Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah has 53 designated shooting ranges, most of them clustered along the Wasatch Front. This list doesn’t include the dozens of sites on public lands where people are free to set up targets and blast away, such as a badly trashed area in the Lake Mountains in Utah County.
In addition to the lead, these sites are often littered with shell casings and shot-up vehicles, cathode television sets and furniture.
According to a 2005 EPA report, there are 9,000 non-military shooting ranges in the United States where millions of pounds of lead are discharged annually.
“Many of these ranges continue to operate in the same manner as in the past,” states the report, meaning they operate without much regard for minimizing environmental contamination.
The most common contaminant at Superfund sites, lead’s impact on human health, particularly on children’s developing brains, is well documented, yet its use at firing ranges remains largely unregulated, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Outdoor firing ranges are among the nation’s biggest source of lead pollution, the group concluded in a 2001 study. It’s impossible to know the extent of the problem since record keeping at non-military ranges is non-existent.
“While most of this lead will likely remain on the site, the nation’s firing ranges represent a major potential source of lead in water and wildlife,” the EWG report states, “and a potential liability to nearby property owners who may find themselves living next to a hazardous waste site or who might be victims of lead drifting onto their property.”
The amount of lead per round varies by ammunition: 2.6 grams in a .22-caliber bullet; 12 grams in a .45; 7.5 grams in a 9 millimeter; and 28 grams in 12-gauge shotgun shell. Multiply these tiny rounds by the thousands and you can have a big problem.
“A small firing range can emit 100 pounds of lead to the environment (the minimum to trigger reporting for the regulated industries) in a matter of days,” the report states. Under federal laws, manufacturers, the military and utilities must track the lead pollution they release, take steps to minimize it and clean up contamination.
“Private firing ranges [by contrast] enjoy immunity from the environmental laws that drive these cleanups,” the EWG report says, “despite the fact that their operation can result in contamination levels many times what triggers major remediation efforts at industrial and military sites.”
The Parleys range is a prime example of the problem described in the report.
To tackle that mess, Salt Lake City officials entered Utah’s Voluntary Cleanup Program administered by the Department of Environmental Quality. The Parleys site is one of six Utah shooting ranges to undergo cleanup under DEQ oversight.
“We really wanted to have another party and another expert ensuring that we have a good approach to both the characterization of the site to make sure we understand exactly what kinds of impacts the shooting range had,” Briefer said. “That way we can help inform additional remediation alternatives.”
The PMAA facility had two shot gun ranges and four rifle ranges, varying in length from 25 to 800 yards. The contamination turned out to be severe in some spots and more spread out in others, and covered 12 acres.
The city’s consultant Kleinfelder gathered dozens of soil samples. Twenty-one of them contained lead levels exceeding 4,000 milligrams per kilogram, or 10 times the EPA’s standard for residential areas. Lead concentrations ranged from just 15 to 67,600 milligrams, and the average was 2,240.
According to Kleinfelder’s report, between 6,000 to 10,000 cubic yards of soil will have to be treated, making the job at least four times larger than the cleanup at the Boy Scout camp in the Tushars. For that cleanup, state trust lands officials are spending up to $300,000 to remove lead fragments from the soil and then return it to the ground.
Salt Lake City’s consultant recommends a combination of treating the soil on-site and then hauling it all away for disposal as non-hazardous waste. The cost would be about $180 per cubic yard, versus $460 if the untreated soil was hauled away and disposed of at a hazardous waste facility.
Briefer said the cleanup would occur in phases over the next few years.
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