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Canadians file concerns over live-fire drills on Great Lakes

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Canadians file concerns over live-fire drills on Great Lakes
Hastings Minnesota 745 Spiral Boulevard 55033

The government of Canada has expressed concerns with the U.S. Coast Guard plan to conduct live-fire machine gun training across 34 sites on the Great Lakes, asking for further environmental review and added safety measures.

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The comments, Canada's first official statement on the issue, were submitted at the end of the Coast Guard's public comment period earlier this month. They were submitted by Tobias Nussbaum, director general of the U.S. Relations Division of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, Canada's version of the State Department.

Nussbaum could not be reached Wednesday, but the comments have been filed in the Federal Register.

Canada's requests include:

  • An environmental assessment under the U.S. National Environmental Protection Act be conducted on the impacts of live ammunition training, taking into account existing pollution conditions in the Great Lakes. Concerns exist over lead contamination affecting both people and waterfowl.
  • The U.S. Coast Guard should consider whether an evaluation of water quality and sediment at each of the sites before initiating training exercises could provide meaningful additional information for managing environmental effects from the training and to later compare whether the spent bullets were causing a lead pollution problem.
  • The Coast Guard should consider using non-toxic ammunition to avoid lead pollution. Options such as tungsten could be used.
  • The Coast Guard should provide advance notification 48 to 72 hours before conducting live ammunition training exercises.
  • Training exercises should be conducted before April 15 or after Nov. 15 to reduce the impact on recreational boating.
  • The Coast Guard should relocate the configuration or number of the safety zones to ensure that no marine traffic route is included in a training zone.
  • The training should be limited to five years, at which point the USGC should reconsider the need and impact of the zones.
  • Live ammunition training should not resume on the lakes until these concerns are fully assessed and can be effectively mitigated.

    In their comments, Canadian officials agreed with the need to bolster law enforcement patrols on the lake, and note their nation has made a major investment in Great Lakes patrol boats and crews after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But they say the U.S. Coast Guard needs to be sensitive to concerns raised on machine gun training.

    There also was a sign Canadians weren't happy about not being notified of the training beforehand.

    "& in the spirit of our border partnership, we believe that new security initiatives, whether on the land border or on the Great Lakes such as the proposal to establish live ammunition training zones in U.S. waters of the Great Lakes must be better communicated and consulted between governments well before they are announced," the comments stated.

    "Canadian provinces and municipalities, as well as other Canadian and U.S. stakeholders, have conveyed to the Government of Canada questions and concerns regarding the establishment of the 34 safety zones and the live ammunition training to be conducted in those zones. These concerns relate primarily to whether spent ammunition will add to lead and other forms of contamination in the Great Lakes, as well as safety considerations regarding commercial and recreational traffic. The Government of Canada shares these questions and concerns. Canada believes that the safety and environmental impacts of this proposed activity need to be more fully assessed before live ammunition training resumes," the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada statement read.

    Coast Guard officials have not formally reviewed the public comments on the plan as yet. Environmental groups, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative and others have expressed concern that the live-fire training may be unsafe to the environment and may be a safety issue for people. Moreover, the groups say the training is an inappropriate activity to mix with maritime shipping, fishing, sailing and recreational boating on the lakes. At least one environmental group has threatened to sue the Coast Guard under the federal Clean Water Act.

    The public comment period on the plan ended Nov. 13. Coast Guard officials say it could be many months until they have deciphered about 550 public comments on the machine gun training plan. Rear Admiral John E. Crowley Jr., Coast Guard commander of the Great Lakes, will make the final decision sometime in 2007.

    More than 750 people attended five public meetings on the training plan held across the Great Lakes, including one in Duluth. Chief Petty Officer Robert Lanier said the two biggest issues raised at the meetings were environmental concerns over lead and safety and public notice concerns.

    Coast Guard units would train with small caliber machine guns. Before training stopped under public and congressional protest in September, 17 units and 249 Coast Guard men and women were trained on the Great Lakes without incident, including near Two Harbors. All live-fire training has been suspended until a decision is made on the safety zones.

    Coast Guard officials note that the five Great Lakes encompass 94,488 square miles of water. The safety zones, combined, would use 2,376 square miles or 2.5 percent of the lakes. The proposed permanent zones would be used only a few times a year and would be restricted only when the Coast Guard is conducting training, for about five hours each time.

    The environmental impact of the training zones has been studied by two independent environmental consulting companies. They concluded there would be no elevated risk to humans or the environment from the spent lead bullets.

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