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Machine gun range prompts legislators to seek more oversight on Joint Base Cape Cod

Eve Zuckoff
Soldiers practice firing a M2 .50 caliber Browning during virtual training exercises on the base. This is the weapon the Guard is hoping to get approved for firing at the proposed machine gun range.

Concerns about transparency and the environmental effects of a proposed machine gun range on Joint Base Cape Cod have prompted legislation that could establish more oversight over base activity.

State Sen. Sue Moran and Rep. Dylan Fernandes, both Democrats with districts that cover the Cape, filed nearly identical bills: H.4022, An Act to Protect Cape Cod's Environment and Water Supply, andS.2552, An Act Protecting the Upper Cape Water Supply Reserve, respectively.

The bills say that any time a proposed project on the base would destroy or clearcut 10 or more acres of forest land, a public hearing must be held in an Upper Cape town. The base is around 22,000 acres in total.

In addition, four external groups, including the Cape Cod Commission, the Community Advisory Council, the Science Advisory Council, and the Upper Cape Regional Water Supply Cooperative must weigh in before final approval is granted by the state Environmental Management Commission, which oversees proposed projects on the Reserve. Projects also would be required to complete full Environmental Impact Reports in accordance with the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act.

“By enacting this legislation we can make sure the public has a voice and the environmental experts offer oversight,” Moran said this week at a hearing before the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. “That way we can rebuild public trust in Joint Base activities and free my constituents from acting as watchdogs for their source of water.”

In an email, a public affairs officer for the Massachusetts National Guard said the Guard takes environmental concerns seriously and complies with all applicable rules.

“We work in coordination with several environmental agencies,” the statement said, “to ensure we meet and exceed state and federal guidelines.”

The spokesperson said the Guard has provided “written testimony in response to the proposed legislation.” In that testimony, the Guard "respectfully objects to HB 4022," because there is "no demonstrable need for the proposed change."

"The proposed legislation includes poorly defined and inflammatory language targeted at forestry and other management actions," wrote Col. Matthew Porter, base operations manager at Camp Edwards. "It is in direct conflict with comprehensive regional conservation plans for rare species and ecosystem conservation that holistically manage for habitat improvement, increased climate resilience, and overall ecosystem health."

Ultimately, he wrote, stipulations in the proposed amendment are "cumbersome," "burdensome," and "redundant."

"The proposed amendment diminishes the statutory authority of the [state's Environmental Management Commission] by requiring other entities – all of which have ample opportunity to comment on proposed actions under the present terms of Chapter 47 – to individually evaluate and approve projects."

Since news of a proposed range ripped through the community in August of 2020, critics have raised concerns that it would require 170 acres of clearcutting, and many have wondered whether chemicals associated with expended ammunition could contaminate the Sole Source Aquifer that runs beneath the base.

In 1989, Joint Base Cape Cod was designateda Superfund Site as a result of contamination to the aquifer by activities on the base, and a billion-dollar effort to clean up the water supply continues.

Transparency has been a key issue, as well. In written testimony, Moran called the environmental review process for the proposed machine gun range “woefully inadequate.”

The bills are working their way through committee. Written testimony may be submitted to the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture by email to: JointCommittee.Environment@malegislature.gov.

Ultimately, Moran said, she and her constituents appreciate and respect the work of National Guard troops.

“But part of protecting people," she said, "means making absolutely sure the National Guard administrators do not take action that would harm our environment and public health.”

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