“Devastating,” “absurd,” and “unambiguously awful” were among the reactions to the Massachusetts Army National Guard’s proposal to build a machine gun range on Joint Base Cape Cod, at a public hearing last night.
The Zoom meeting, hosted by the state Environmental Management Commission (EMC), was the first opportunity for the public to comment and ask questions directly to Guard officials.
One minute after the meeting began, Zoom hit its maximum participant limit at 100 attendees, which immediately prompted concerns in the comment section about whether the meeting could really be representative.
"That is completely unacceptable to limit the number of participants to 100 and is a blatant move to censor public outcry against this," wrote Cole Silva, a Barnstable resident and co-chair of Cape Cod Democratic Socialists of America. The Commission said it was not intentional.
For nearly the next two hours, Guard officials described how their proposal mitigates potential noise, groundwater, wildlife, and traffic impacts, and explained the need for the eight-lane range.
“You look at an active component Army unit, [and] they have 356 days a year to train. And the National Guard component really doesn’t. They have 48 days. … But we have to do all the same training,” said Brigadier General Christopher Faux, executive director of the base. “When we don’t have a range at our training base, and we have to travel a number of miles away to other states… to get our qualifications done, it takes up a lot of time and it means we don’t get other training done, or we don’t do the training that we’re supposed to be doing to the standard in which we have to.”
According to the Guard, four acres of rare species habitat would be preserved for every acre affected. Also, base officials said this project presented an opportunity to expand the Francis Crane Wildlife Management Area just south of the base through a direct land transfer of 260 acres. Several design changes have been made to minimize environmental impact, the Guard said, including reducing the number of lanes from the standard ten to eight. At last night’s meeting, the Guard also clarified the range would allow only copper ammunition, rather than lead, to protect soil and groundwater. It noted that soldiers already fire machine guns on the base without posing any major problems.
Throughout the Guard’s presentation, the public reacted live in the comments, many with fury and disapproval. Once granted the opportunity to speak to the Guard and EMC, those emotions burst into full view.
“The fact that people in the military there now go to other ranges seems to be a better thing. Cape Cod is a very small area, and adding more traffic and pollution… it’s just unconscionable,” said Elaine Dickinson, who offered comments on behalf of the League of Women Voters.
Despite the Guard’s earlier assurances, many speakers expressed concerns about the threat that clear-cutting 170 acres of trees could pose to climate change mitigation efforts, and how that will affect wildlife. Many also brought up the base’s history of contaminating the aquifer that runs underneath the base and provides drinking water to Upper Cape towns.
In 2002, a state law established the 15,000-acre Upper Cape Water Supply Reserve to make sure activities at the military base would not negatively impact the water flowing beneath it.
“It was told to us that this base was going to have clean activities,” said Sandra Faiman-Silva, a Falmouth resident who said she was a member of the committee that investigated pollution on the base in the 1980s. She said the Guard assured Cape residents ”that you had learned your lesson about polluting our sole source aquifer. You haven’t learned your lesson!”
Many attendees called for the Guard to produce a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which could elicit many more public meetings and delay the proposal for up three years. Currently, the Guard is working on responding to 370 comments it’s received since August 7, when the public was notified about the project for the first time. The comment period closed after 30 days on September 7.
During the meeting, it was revealed the Guard began working on the project eight years ago.
“Now you’ve told us that it was back in 2012 that you began to think about this proposal. … We didn’t hear about it until August 7,” said Faiman-Silva. “This is a cover-up, plain and simple.”
Environmental activists with the Sierra Club announced that they plan to protest the proposed machine gun range on Monday.
The Environmental Management Commission plans to host another public meeting that allows for more participants before the end of October. Once the Guard has completed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, base officials will request a vote of the EMC for approval of the range design and of the operations, maintenance, and monitoring plan.
If approved, the Guard will be free to begin construction, which it hopes could happen as soon as this fall.
“We all support our National Guard,” said Elizabeth Harder, the Harwich delegate to the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates, “but their inconvenience and driving time does not justify ruining Cape Cod.”