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MA Guard tries to eliminate EPA block of planned Cape Cod machine gun range

Spc. Meneide gets help from Master Sgt. John Ruth and her assistant gunner. She leans back, looking through the sights down range, and presses the trigger with her thumbs.
Eve Zuckoff
Spc. Meneide gets help from Master Sgt. John Ruth and her assistant gunner. She leans back, looking through the sights down range, and presses the trigger with her thumbs.

A new front has opened in the Massachusetts National Guard’s years-long effort to build a controversial machine gun range on Joint Base Cape Cod. Newly disclosed emails reveal the Guard is leveling accusations against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and trying to cut the EPA out of the process. CAI's Eve Zuckoff and Steve Junker talked through the details.

Steve Junker: Why is the Guard trying to force the EPA to the sidelines here, essentially making its judgment irrelevant when it comes to plans to build a machine gun range on the Upper Cape?

Eve Zuckoff: Well, for years now, we've been seeing the Guard want to build this range to keep soldiers from traveling long distances for training. But the New England branch of the EPA stepped in, after the community raised concerns about the range contaminating the aquifer that runs beneath the base. That aquifer provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands of Cape residents and visitors every year.

Then, last year, environmental officials with the EPA released a draft report that confirmed those worries about contamination. And if it gets finalized by the head of the EPA in Washington D.C., no federal funding can be put towards building the range. That would effectively kill the project.

So that brings us to today: we now have these emails between the Massachusetts Army National Guard and the EPA, the National Guard Bureau, and other top government officials, after the Association to Preserve Cape Cod filed a Freedom of Information Act request, and passed the emails to us. The emails reveal the Guard is trying to move ahead with this project in a way that cuts out the EPA.

Steve Junker: How could the Guard cut the EPA out of the decision-making process when the EPA has already done all this work to produce this draft report — which is, as you say, unfavorable to the Guard?

Eve Zuckoff: The emails reveal that the Guard believes EPA doesn’t actually have a “legal input or approval role” in this project. This is a switch in strategy. Initially, the Guard said the EPA’s findings about risks to the aquifer were incorrect.

Now, they’re relying on the fact that the Guard serves both state and federal missions. So they’re effectively saying: instead of the range being a state project receiving federal assistance, where maybe the EPA can step in, this is actually a federal project with federal funding. And the EPA is exempt from regulating a project like that even though it’s the same project.

Steve Junker: So they're kind of switching how the project is labeled, apparently to dodge the EPA's input?

Eve: It seems that way. We'll see if it works. It could.

Steve Junker: What is the EPA saying in response?

Eve Zuckoff: In a written statement, the EPA said the Cape’s drinking water remains a high priority and it respects the important role that the Guard plays. The Guard has worked for decades to train soldiers while also partnering, “with state and federal agencies to investigate environmental conditions, assess data and conduct clean ups, where necessary, to protect and sustain the Cape Cod Aquifer.”

The EPA concludes this statement by saying they’re continuing to review the Guard's proposed machine gun range. Just last week we reported the Guard submitted a scaled-down version of the project to the EPA. That's now kind of in limbo, to my mind.

So the EPA is staying out of the fray and not showing us on the record what it might be doing to make sure it's not made irrelevant by the Guard.

And it’s worth saying, we reached out to the Guard about this, and the response was "no comment."

Steve Junker: OK, there were a lot of documents and emails you got. What else did you learn?

Eve Zuckoff: The Guard says the relationship with the EPA has fully broken down across a number of emails and internal documents. There are some powerful accusations of “questionable practices” and “bad faith” action on the part of EPA. The Guard says the EPA has “eroded” trust because of “lack of transparency” and “improper relationships” with range opponents.

We also see the Guard trying to explain that they have a completely different view of the science and impact on the aquifer than the EPA does, and that at this point the EPA is disregarding the Guard’s mitigation measures.

In addition, we see the Guard in these emails say that they’re trying to get a company to sign a contract to build the range before September 30th, when congressional funds they've secured for the range are due to go away.

Steve Junker: You've been covering this project for years. I'm curious, what questions do you have as you look at a change in the whole landscape of this?

Eve Zuckoff: I've got a few.

First, if the Guard's argument is that the EPA doesn’t have a role, the Guard should be free to move forward and build the range. So what’s the holdup? Maybe getting the rest of the funds?

It's hard to know because the trail runs cold for these emails after March. So what’s happened since? Has a contractor signed on?

And most importantly, I have a question for the state, which is: if this is how the Guard is proceeding, what do you want to do? The final word on the project is supposed to be from the Environmental Management Commission (EMC), which is a state body, or the Governor, if she so chooses. Both have been publicly silent or near silent on this proposed range. And range critics are saying it’s time for the EMC in particular to intervene, initiating a full public review.

Steve Junker: As I say, you have been following this story now for a number of years. At one point, you even traveled up to Vermont with Guard members to see how they trained on the kind of weapon this range was originally designed for. All of that reporting is that our website. That's CAI's Eve Zuckoff. Thank you.

Eve Zuckoff: Thank you.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Find the documents below (click to download documents):

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