Salt Lake City spends millions cleaning up contaminated shooting ranges

An estimated 160 million pounds of lead are balled and pelletized each year, accounting for 4% of all lead used in the United States.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a significant but unknown portion of this munition, which is made of a known toxic metal, is leaking into the environment at thousands of outdoor shooting ranges.

Costly remediation work is currently underway at taxpayer expense at some of these Utah locations where decades of gunfire on public lands have left soil saturated with lead. The most expensive event takes place at a former shooting range in Parleys Canyon, which is half a mile uphill from a reservoir that supplies Salt Lake City with drinking water.

Beginning in 1969, the Police Mutual Aid Association (PMAA) operated a firing range in the gorge, where police officers honed their marksmanship with handguns, rifles, and shotguns, and scattered countless slugs of lead into the watershed. The range operated on part of a 318-acre municipal property whose lease expired four years ago.

In a controversial decision, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall opposed further use of the site as a firing range, arguing it was time to restore and preserve the land.

“We were particularly concerned about the level of lead contamination from gunfire accumulated over the half-century. Unfortunately, it appears that in the 50 years of operation nothing of the shot was removed and much of the property is contaminated with lead,” Mendenhall wrote in a 2021 memo sharing the conclusions of an analysis of the site.

“The results of the work show very high lead levels and high leachability of the lead present in the soil,” the mayor wrote. “It appears that some of the lead shot broke; Now there are high concentrations of lead dust in the ground and in the building associated with the range.”

In 2019, the PMAA decided not to renew its lease because of the risk of wildfires, but ended up leaving the city to deal with the removal of tons of lead clogged in the ground, which could cost over $4 million depending on the method used. show documents. The cleanup will be far more costly than what the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) is planning to clean up an old firing 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 affected area is much larger at 12 acres versus 2 acres. Because the site is so close to Mountain Dell Reservoir and a water treatment plant, the city wants to perform cleaning at the highest level, according to Laura Briefer, the city’s public utilities manager.

“Because we want to meet human health and environmental impact goals associated with water resources and habitats,” Briefer said, “the recommendation was to excavate and stabilize [the soil] so it is ready for safe treatment and disposal rather than leaving it in place.”

The cost estimate is between $1.25 and $1.8 million depending on how much soil needs to be treated.

According to a list from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, there are 53 designated shooting ranges in Utah, most of them along the Wasatch Front. This list doesn’t include the dozens of locations on public lands where people are free to set up targets and blast them away, such as a heavily devastated area in Utah County’s Lake Mountains.

Brian Maffly | Salt Lake Tribune gunman aims a 9mm handgun at paper targets on public land west of Utah Lake in 2015.

In addition to the lead, these sites are often littered with bullet casings and wrecked vehicles, cathode ray television sets and furniture.

According to a 2005 EPA report, there are 9,000 non-military firing ranges in the United States that release millions of pounds of lead annually.

“Many of these areas continue to function in the same way as in the past,” the report says, meaning they are operated with little regard for minimizing pollution.

The effects of lead on human health, particularly the developing brains of children, are well documented, the most common pollutant at Superfund sites, yet its use on firing ranges remains largely unregulated, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The group concluded in a 2001 study that outdoor firing ranges are among the largest sources of lead pollution in the country. It is impossible to estimate the extent of the problem as records are not kept at non-military firing ranges.

“While most of this lead is likely to remain on the property, the country’s firing ranges represent a major potential source of lead in water and wildlife,” the EWG report said, “and a potential constraint on surrounding property owners who may be affected.” might live next.” be taken to a hazardous waste site or be a victim of lead spilled onto their property.”

The amount of lead per shot 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 a 12-gauge shotshell. Multiply those small rounds by thousands and you can have a big problem.

Brian Maffly | Salt Lake Tribune shotgun cases litter public lands in the Lake Mountains of Utah, pictured in 2015, where the BLM restricted target shooting, affecting a large area west of Utah Lake.

“A small shooting range can release 100 pounds of lead into the environment in a matter of days (the minimum to trigger an alert for regulated industries),” the report states. Federal law requires manufacturers, the military, and utilities to track the lead pollution they release, take steps to minimize it, and clean up the contamination.

“Private shooting ranges [by contrast] enjoy immunity from the environmental laws driving this cleanup,” the EWG report said, “despite the fact that their implementation can result in contamination levels many times greater than what large-scale cleanup efforts at industrial and military sites require triggers.”

The Parleys range is a prime example of the problem described in the report.

To deal with this mess, Salt Lake City officials got involved in Utah’s voluntary cleanup program administered by the Department of Environmental Quality. The Parleys facility is one of six shooting ranges in Utah undergoing a cleanup under the supervision of the DEQ.

“We really wanted to have one more party and one more expert to make sure we have a good approach both in characterizing the site to make sure we understand exactly what kind of impact the shooting range had,” Briefer said. “In this way, we can help identify additional renovation alternatives.”

The PMAA facility had two shotgun ranges and four firing ranges ranging in length from 25 yards to 800 yards. The contamination was severe in some locations, but more widespread in others, covering 12 acres.

City consultant Kleinfelder collected dozens of soil samples. Twenty-one of them contained lead levels in excess of 4,000 milligrams per kilogram, which is 10 times the EPA residential standard. Lead concentrations ranged from 15 to 67,600 milligrams, with an average of 2,240.

According to Kleinfelder’s report, between 6,000 and 10,000 cubic yards of soil need to be treated, making the job at least four times larger than the cleanup at the Scout camp in the Tushars. For this cleanup, State Trust Land officials are spending up to $300,000 to remove lead fragments from the ground and then put them back into the ground.

The Salt Lake City consultant recommends a combination of treating the soil on site and then hauling it away for disposal as non-hazardous waste. The cost would be about $180 per cubic meter, compared to $460 if the untreated soil were hauled away and disposed of in a hazardous waste landfill.

Briefer said the cleanup would be gradual over the next few years.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Justin Scaccy

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