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EPA to Review Whether Proposed Machine Gun Range Will Contaminate Drinking Water

The red outline on this map of Camp Edwards shows where the Army National Guard is proposing an eight-lane machine gun range. The surface danger zone, where projectiles could land, is highlighted in pink.
Massachusetts National Guard
The red outline on this map of Camp Edwards shows where the Army National Guard is proposing an eight-lane machine gun range. The surface danger zone, where projectiles could land, is highlighted in pink.

Federal environmental officials will investigate whether the proposed machine gun range on Joint Base Cape Cod could contaminate drinking water in Upper Cape towns, a development that could delay the project.

In a letter released Monday, officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said they will evaluate whether the $11.5 million project has the potential to create “significant hazards to public health.”

“Given the scope of this project, the level of public interest, and the petition [from a Cape Cod resident], EPA has elected to conduct this review,” wrote Kenneth Moraff, water division director for the EPA, in a letter addressed to Adjunct General Gary W. Keefe of the Massachusetts National Guard.

The move by the EPA was hailed by Barnstable County Commissioner Mark Forest.

“For those who've been thinking that this is just a [not-in-my-backyard] issue or something that’s not being taken seriously,” Forest said, “this is an indication that there are serious questions that have been raised and that need to be answered.”

The Barnstable County Commission is currently evaluating legal options to challenge the project.

“I'm not aware of any precedent in which [the EPA] prevented the military from spending money,” Forest added. “But this could be an interesting test case.”

In a statement, a Guard spokesperson said the Guard, "welcomes the opportunity to participate in the Environmental Protection Agency’s review, and remains committed to working with federal, state and local partners to protect the environment on Cape Cod."

"This process coincides with the Guard’s ongoing work to listen to stakeholders, answer questions, and engage with community members about this project.”

Officials have also previously said that all ammunition used on the range would be copper ammunition, as opposed to lead ammunition, which has contributed to past water contamination.

Guard Contends with Difficult Past

A $1.2 billion cleanup from previous pollution remains under way, and community members have consistently asked whether chemicals associated with expended ammunition or other activity on the proposed range could again contaminate drinking water.

The EPA review will focus on those concerns, evaluating how the range could affect the region’s sole source aquifer, which runs beneath the base and provides drinking water to Upper Cape towns.

In a statement to WCAI, an EPA spokesperson said: "Our expected time for completion of the [sole source aquifer] review is weeks to months depending upon the availability of the information on the project and impacted areas, including ground water reports and modelling."

Moraff’s letter explains that the EPA defines a sole source aquifer as one that supplies at least 50 percent of the drinking water for its service area, with no “reasonably available alternative drinking water sources” in case of contamination.

The Cape's aquifer was designated as a sole source aquifer in 1982 — a feat that, Forest said, carries significant weight.

“You've got a federal agency that is responsible for making sure that large federal expenditures don't adversely impact our sole source aquifer,” Forest said. “And they're saying, ‘Hey, wait a second, we have concerns here.’”

EPA Seeks More Information

It’s unclear how much the EPA’s review could delay the project, or whether it will prompt more public meetings, but the EPA has notified the Guard and the state’s Environmental Management Commission, which has the power to approve or deny the project.

“One of the takeaways from this is that this is no longer the Trump administration EPA, but this is some new leadership,” Forest said. “And obviously, they've been given the green light to scrutinize this project. … Hopefully the Environmental Management Commission will take notice.”

Guard officials will now be expected to hand over more detailed information to federal investigators.

Environmental Group Intensifies Challenge to Guard

Among the more vocal opponents to the project has been the Association to Preserve Cape Cod. On Monday, the local environmental group said the Massachusetts National Guard has withheld at least two emails that Gen. Christopher Faux, Joint Base Cape Cod’s executive director, sent to public officials and staff about the range.

This follows earlier public records requests APCC filed after Faux sent a letter to the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce threatening to withdraw military support from area businesses if the business community didn’t come out in favor of the range.

Twice, the Guard released what base officials said were all the emails requested under public records laws, but APCC Executive Director Andrew Gottlieb said the Guard withheld several “relevant and disturbing” emails that Faux sent to a congressional staffer.

“We believe that there are records that are relevant and fall within the purview of the request we made and the public records law that should have been turned over to us under the Massachusetts law and that they weren’t,” he said. “And that's inappropriate and illegal.”

On Monday, APCC appealed to the state Supervisor of Records, who could order the release of the emails. APCC also could appeal in Superior Court.

“We are fully prepared, if we do not get a timely, satisfactory resolution of this," Gottlieb said, "to have the remainder of this conversation under deposition, under oath if we need to, in order to secure the documents that we're entitled to see."

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