Coast Guard withdraws Great Lakes ‘live firing’

Agency hopes to develop new, more widely
accepted plan

By Tim
Spielman
Associate Editor

Cleveland – Responding to a variety of criticism over a plan to
practice firing new artillery over portions of the Great Lakes, the
U.S. Coast Guard this week withdrew the plan, and promised to work
with fishing, environmental, and other groups to develop something
more satisfying to the public.

The plan called for 34 ‘safety zones’ for live-fire training,
including seven zones in Lake Superior waters.

Chief Petty Officer Robert Lanier, assistant public affairs
officer for the Coast Guard’s Ninth District in Cleveland, said the
Guard received more than 240 comments at public meetings held
during the past year. Together with comments in other forms, the
agency received more than 900 comments. Lanier said Coast Guard
officials also spoke with elected representatives and community
leaders.

‘There was a lot of concern,’ Lanier said. ‘At this point, we
felt it was better to pull the proposal and start from the
beginning.’

Before a new plan is created, Lanier said the Coast Guard will
make certain it’s heard the concerns of vested interests, and will
attempt to better explain the need for Coast Guard training on the
Great Lakes.

New alternatives could range from new zones to new training time
periods, to the frequency of exercises to more environmentally safe
ammunition.

‘We still have the need to make sure our men and women are
trained,’ Lanier said.

Coast Guard officials say since 2004, on a national level, the
agency has been equipped with and trained with light machine
guns.

‘Canada agreed that U.S. Coast Guard vessels could be armed with
machine guns to conduct national security and law enforcement
activities, and reserved the right to arm its own vessels,’
according to a Coast Guard news statement.

Lanier said 24 training exercises were conducted within
temporary zones on the Great Lakes between Jan. 1, 2006 and Sept.
13, 2006. A comment period on the permanent safety zones began Aug.
1 this year. The comment period later was extended into
November.

Coast Guard officials say, since the 24 exercises were
completed, crew members on cutters armed with M240-B lightweight
automatic weapons are now qualified. However, additional training
must be available as refresher courses, and to train new Coast
Guard members.

‘We have a duty to the public,’ Lanier said. ‘We have to be
prepared, we have to be trained, and we have to be qualified to
operated the equipment.’

Various groups, including members of the U.S. Congress,
questioned various aspects of the Coast Guard’s proposal. Those
concerns ranged from the safety of Great Lakes anglers, to the
amount of lead that would be deposited on the bottom of the
lakes.

U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., said he and fellow Rep. Dave
Obey, D-Wis., were informed of the decision by Admiral Thad Allen,
Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.

‘I commend Admiral Allen for making a hard decision, making a
clean break with the past, and launching a new and transparent
project,’ Oberstar said in a press statement. ‘We understand the
need of the Coast Guard to be in a top state of readiness, but they
must respect the public’s concern for safety and the environment. I
hope that by taking a step back, the Coast Guard will be able to
move forward with an alternative that will allow them the training
they need and satisfy the public’s concerns.’

Earlier estimates indicated test firing would result in about
6,900 pounds of lead and 2,800 pounds of copper deposited in the
Great Lakes each year, a side-effect highly criticized by
environmental groups.

Capt. Dick Bohlmann, a 20-year Duluth charter captain on Lake
Superior, said the hazards additional lead would present would be
minimal.

The ammo is copper-plated, he said, and ‘500 feet or deeper in
the water, no ducks or geese are going to be digesting it.’

Bohlmann said he and most other charter captains in the Duluth
area supported the Coast Guard’s plan.

‘Charter captains are not against it,’ he said. ‘In the first
place, they won’t be doing it where we fish. And the majority of us
charter captains are veterans, like myself, and we realize the
military needs to train.’

The Great Lakes consist of about 94,500 square miles of surface
water, and Lanier said the formerly proposed safety zones would
cover about 2,400 square miles, or about 2.5 percent of the lakes’
surface water.

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