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Tempers Flare at Falmouth Meeting Over Proposed Machine Gun Range

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Eve Zuckoff
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Debbie Aguiar shows her support for the proposed machine gun range outside Falmouth High School.

Despite opening pleas for cordiality, a public meeting last night in Falmouth to discuss a proposed machine gun range on Joint Base Cape Cod nearly came to blows.

The town Select Board called the meeting to allow officials with the Massachusetts Army National Guard and activists with the environmental group 350 Cape Cod to express their opposing points of view on the proposed eight-lane range.

The activists highlighted concerns that the project would require clearcutting 170 acres of a globally rare forest and would be placed over the Cape’s Sole Source Aquifer, which provides drinking water to all five upper Cape towns. Earlier this week, officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said they would review whether activity on the range could contaminate the drinking water and pose “significant hazards to public health.”

Meanwhile, Guard officials explained their extensive groundwater cleanup plans and said mitigation efforts — including research, relocation of affected species, and a land transfer of 410 acres to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife -- will provide a net-benefit to 40 state-listed species.

“I know there is a history of contamination on the base as a whole, and we’ve worked hard for the past 20 years to improve that and really clean up that groundwater and soils around it,” Col. Matthew Porter said. “Soldiers [and] the teams that work on this project … have taken that and really embraced that culture of training, and culture of conservation, and combined it.”

The meeting was also an opportunity for members of the public to ask questions and share comments, which demonstrated just how far apart the community is on the $11.5 million project.

At one point, a range supporter who identified himself as Andrew was asked to return to his seat after his allotted three-minute comment. Environmentalist and combat veteran Mon Cochran was among those in the front row calling for the man to sit down.

“Come make me,” the man repeated, getting in Cochran’s face. A police officer in the room was called over as the altercation wound down.

The animating issue, for a number of range supporters, was support for the military.

“Give them the tools they need. If it means a machine gun range, give them a machine gun range,” said one commenter.

Marc Finneran of Falmouth agreed.

“Pardon the cheap puns, but [the environmentalists] come here unarmed. They have no smoking gun,” he said. “I haven’t heard anybody, with any science, with any weight whatsoever, as to why this should not proceed and go forward.”

Many of the range supporters said environmentalists at the meeting were using a double standard, calling for significantly more scrutiny on the range than other Cape Cod developments that could damage water quality and wildlife habitat.

But environmentalists including Susan Richman emphasized their concerns about how chemicals associated with expended ammunition could contaminate the Sole Source Aquifer.

“When it comes down to something as fundamental as drinking water, I would err on the side of, ‘Let’s not do something that has a danger to ruin the water we drink,’” she said. “There must be places that it could be done … that would not be on top of an aquifer.”

Steven Ellis shared those concerns.

“Just like in medicine you’re told to do something today, but in five or 10 years down the line they’re not doing that anymore because they’re thinking differently about that situation,” he said. “And that’s my concern, that down the road when we have better information that some of this activity is going to be looked upon as, ‘We could have done a better job.’”

Several members of the public also called for more compromise and respectful collaboration with the Guard. Hearing that, the meeting ended with a question from the Select Board: would the Guard consider an independent review of the environmental issues?

Guard officials were noncommittal.

In recent months, the town of Mashpee, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, the Barnstable County Commission, and the Cape and Islands Selectmen and Councilors Association, have all formally opposed the range, primarily over environmental concerns.

Members of the Famouth Select Board said they’ll consider the public’s feedback and meet soon to vote on whether to support the range.