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A 20-year-old state law could be pivotal for proposed machine gun range on Cape military base

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Massachusetts National Guard
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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.

Kathryn: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is set to release a report that will examine the impact a proposed machine gun range will have on drinking water that runs beneath Joint Base Cape Cod. CAI's Eve Zuckoff is here now to talk about how a compromise the state made with the federal government 20 years ago could allow public conservation land to be turned into a machine gun range in the first place. Morning, Eve.

Eve: Hi, Kathryn!

Kathryn: Eve, I just said something that should have pricked up the ears of many listeners. I said that this machine gun range is proposed for conservation land. But it's on Joint Base Cape Cod, a military installation.

Eve: I get the confusion. It is conservation land, but not in the conventional sense. For instance, you can’t just walk your dog on it. But to explain this, let’s go back in time to 2002: 20 years ago this month, the state protected two-thirds of the base as conservation land. By creating what’s called “The Upper Cape Water Supply Reserve,” the state dedicated the area to the protection of wildlife habitat and the aquifer beneath the base. But, the state said, military training is allowed in some forms. We’ll come back to this idea. Also, the state took control of the land away from base officials and gave it to a three-person state Environmental Management Commission (EMC). That group, to this day, has major decision-making power.

Kathryn: So, is it right to assume this conservation land established because people knew that the land was polluted due to all the military activity that took place there over the years?

Eve: Exactly. From the 1940s through the 1970s, the base was full of people doing artillery training, explosives training, all kinds of training. All during that time, there was basically no such thing as industrial waste management and no real understanding of how chemicals can travel through groundwater. So the conventional wisdom was, “You can just dump fuel and chemicals straight into the ground.” Things really didn’t change until the 1980s and '90s when cancer rates on the Cape started to skyrocket, which prompted a number of studies, including those that found the aquifer that runs beneath the northern 15,000 acres of the base supplies drinking water to all the Upper Cape towns — thousands of people. With all of this going on, by 1989 the EPA declared the base a Superfund site — meaning the land is seriously contaminated and a risk to public health.

Kathryn: So how — and who — convinced the military to put restrictions on land they had historically used? It's one thing to say, 'It's contaminated, let's clean it up.' It's another thing to restrict it.

Eve: The restrictions actually came out of a compromise. There were activists and politicians like Congressman Bill Delahunt who initially said that the northern 15,000 acres of the base should be a wildlife refuge kept pristine. They called for no military activity at all. In the '90s, the base was even threatened with closure, but loss of jobs and some other factors kept it alive and allowed for a deal to be made. Today, military training is allowed as long as it’s “compatible” with wildlife preservation and water protection. The problem, of course, is that there’s debate over what the word “compatible” really means.

Kathryn: So, back to the machine gun range, is the state commission in charge of this land wrestling with whether the proposal fits the definition of "compatible?"

Eve: We don’t know what’s going on in the minds of the officials who will make the final decision on the range. But the way the law is written is open to interpretation: The Guard says the machine gun range is compatible with wildlife and water protections because its plan includes mitigation measures, among them land transfer. Plus, copper bullets — not lead — would be cleaned up routinely. But folks who are anti-range — including lawyers for Barnstable County — say the range isn't compatible with water and wildlife protection. They point out that about 170 acres of trees will be clearcut as part of a much larger, 5,000-acre danger zone. So this largely forgotten law from 2002 that calls for wildlife and water protection is foundational to their legal argument.

Kathryn: So we mentioned at the beginning here that the next step in this machine gun range saga is the release of an EPA water quality report. Is the state commission going to use this report in helping it to decide whether the machine gun range is compatible with this conservation area?

Eve: Yes, this report should weigh into their decision about whether the machine gun range is "compatible." That report was expected to come out this spring, but just yesterday an EPA spokesperson told me the agency is awaiting more information from the Guard, so it’s expected that an evaluation will take "additional months." We don't know what that means yet.

Kathryn: That’s CAI’s Eve Zuckoff. Thanks Eve.

Eve: Thanks, Kathryn.

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