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New machine gun range proposal on Cape Cod draws skepticism from opponents, officials

In a draft report, the EPA found a proposed machine gun range on Joint Base Cape Cod could contaminate the region's drinking water. Last night, about 100 people gathered for an unprecedented public hearing in Sandwich to share their thoughts.
Eve Zuckoff
In a draft report, the EPA found a proposed machine gun range on Joint Base Cape Cod could contaminate the region's drinking water. At a spring 2023 event, about 100 people gathered for an unprecedented public hearing in Sandwich to share their thoughts.

Massachusetts lawmakers and environmentalists say pared-back plans to build a machine gun range on Joint Base Cape Cod still threaten the region’s drinking water.

The Massachusetts Army National Guard submitted a new plan to the Environmental Protection Agency after officials from the federal agency found the range’s initial design could contaminate the aquifer that runs beneath the base. That aquifer provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands of Cape Cod residents and visitors.

The plan — with EPA comments — was then sent in early April to the Massachusetts congressional delegation. This week, officials began responding.

“I’m grateful for the EPA’s focus on clean drinking water and its rigorous scientific process, which it has deployed here in service of protecting the health of every person and all the wildlife depending on Cape Cod’s sole source aquifer,” Sen. Ed Markey said in a statement.

“When federal funds are being requested for a project, and when that project could affect a resource as critical as the aquifer, we must let sound science be our guiding light. In its response to my letter, the EPA highlighted some clear and so far unaddressed concerns, and I thank them for their ongoing work.”

A spokesperson for Rep. Bill Keating, whose congressional district includes Cape Cod, shared a similar sentiment, saying he stands by his position that the EPA must be allowed to complete its environmental review before the project potentially moves forward.

“He looks forward to reviewing EPA’s final report that will determine whether this project, including any potential changes put forward by the National Guard, is eligible for federal funding. Congressman Keating trusts that the experts at the EPA are in the best position to determine whether or not any project changes will satisfy concerns about potential impacts to our sole source aquifer,” Keating’s spokesperson said.

Troubling details of new proposal

The Guard’s new proposal reduces the number of bullets that would be fired on the proposed range from 1.3 million per year to 800,000, but critics aren’t convinced that change would be enough to avoid environmental damage.

“At the end of the day, it's still an inappropriate use no matter how you scale it or change it or modify it,” said Barnstable County Commissioner Mark Forest.

In 2002, Forest was part of an effort by the state to protect two-thirds of the base as conservation land by establishing the “The Upper Cape Water Supply Reserve.” That designation allows military training above the aquifer, as long as it’s “compatible” with wildlife preservation and water protection. Nevertheless, there’s debate over what the word “compatible” really means.

To Forest, a machine gun range that requires clearcutting 170 acres of trees and still threatens drinking water, according to the EPA, is far from compatible.

“It's almost akin to someone trying to justify building a school playground in the middle of a highway, right? No matter how many times you adjust the slides or make modifications to it, it's still in a bad place,” he concluded.

CAI sent 10 questions to the Massachusetts Army National Guard about the updated plan. A Guard spokesperson declined to comment at this time.

Another point of contention around the Guard’s new plan has to do with the proposed size and scope. Critics say that $1.2 billion has already gone into removing pollutants from the base, and this project will only add more.

“The revised proposal has them removing spent munitions once every 10 years,” said Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, noting that the EPA recommended a more frequent and robust cleanup plan. “It's hard to take this as a serious attempt to address the environmental considerations.”

Also, Guard officials said they would eliminate a proposed area of the gun range with extra-long lanes where guardsmen and women could shoot the .50 caliber M2 machine gun.

“By characterizing the project as a reduction in size, it completely contradicts the basis for which they pursued the range in the first place, which was they needed it as designed, without changes, in order to meet the Department of Defense training requirements,” Gottlieb said. “And now all of a sudden, we're asked to believe there's a scaled down range that will also meet those training requirements.”

Gottlieb said he’s concerned that Guard officials are pursuing a scaled-down range with the money they have in hand just for now, and that they fully intend to come back in the future to build their original plan.

“So at the end of the day, the project gets segmented. We end up with the same project of the same size, with the same impacts, but they avoid the environmental review process,” Gottlieb said. “It's really dishonest and disingenuous.”

Questions for the Guard remain unanswered 

Meanwhile, he said, a machine gun range under construction in central Massachusetts could provide soldiers with the infrastructure they need.

“The scaled-down project that they propose here now is essentially the same as what's being built currently at Fort Devens, which jeopardizes nobody's water supply.”

Questions about the central Massachusetts machine gun range were among the inquiries CAI sent to the Guard. Those questions include:

  • If the proposed Cape Cod range can’t accommodate the .50 caliber machine gun, won’t guardsmen and women still have to travel to Vermont and elsewhere to get that training?
  • If so, why build a machine gun range on JBCC when a similar range — also without M2 .50 caliber capability — is being built on Fort Devens in central Massachusetts?
  • Is the Guard dropping the size of the lanes now to fit construction costs to the amount already appropriated, only to come back later to finish the expansion?

Even without those answers in hand, Forest said it’s time the proposed range was abandoned.

“We look to our military to protect us, and that should include our water supply,” the county commissioner said. “And to be having this kind of debate, having this kind of fight, is very disconcerting.”

 

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.