Archived News

SCC looks at options to remove 60 tons of lead from shooting range

It’s been three decades since the shooting range now operated by Southwestern Community College first opened, and the college is hoping for some money to address issues that have been mounting since then.

The fix will cost $1.5 to $2 million, college officials told the Jackson County Commissioners recently. 

The main problem? An estimated 60 tons of lead bullets nested inside the range’s clay backstop. 

“Basically these huge balls of lead are accumulating in the target area in the clay bank, and when those balls of lead accumulate, especially after a rain event, they can create a ricochet effect,” said Daniel Manring, coordinator of administrative and facility projects for SCC. “The bullets hit that ball of lead and break into small fragments, and those fragments are what is coming back to the shooter.”

The situation hasn’t caused any injuries — the range is almost exclusively used in law enforcement training classes, with shooters wearing proper protective gear — but it’s not something that SCC wants to see persist. Last year, the college ordered a report from Lofquist & Associates, a Sylva-based engineering firm, to assess the situation and possible solutions. 

Lofquist offered a variety of recommendations, covering erosion control, stormwater drainage, improved signage, bullet traps and other topics. But the report also had some suggestions when it came to dealing with lead.

Related Items

Because 60 tons is a weight equivalent to 50 mustang ponies, four sperm whales or 7,500 bowling balls. It’s a lot of lead. 

Lofquist recommended that SCC install a roof cover over the bullet trap to keep rainwater from transporting the lead and also make improvements to storm drainage and erosion control in order to “minimize water contact with the bullet trap areas for improved environmental stewardship.” In addition, the report said, the college should test the soil’s pH periodically to make sure it’s not too acidic — lead leaches more easily in acidic environments — install subsurface underdrains to decrease the amount of water flowing through the bullet trap and review regulations from various agencies to make sure they’re using the best practices possible. 

“A proactive approach to lead best management practices will improve protection of both humans and the environment,” the report reads. 


After the shot is fired

Lead, a heavy metal, has been proven to have effects in humans ranging from insomnia to poor muscle coordination to neurological damage and death in children. 

But that’s only a problem if it’s ingested, and lead doesn’t tend to break down all that easily when it’s just lying on the ground. In fact, if you were to happen across a Civil War-era bullet on an old battlefield, said James Landmeyer, a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, someone with a period rifle would be able to pick it up, clean it off and shoot it just the same as they would 150 years ago. 

“Unlike an old car that can sort of slowly rot out in the woods and rust out into the earth,” Landmeyer said, “bullets tend not to do that. The life of these metals at land surface tend to resist being degraded.”

Water, though, adds a complication. If a bullet is bathed in water, then the lead — and other heavy metals used to make the bullet — can leach out. 

“If this range is right up against a river, the biggest risk is having chunks erode into the river,” Landmeyer said. “That’s the greatest potential risk.”

The shooting range is just uphill from the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is just uphill from the Tuckasegee River. Lofquist’s report identifies the bullet impact area for the rifle and handgun part of the range as “heavily eroded.” 

Federal standards don’t tag lead as hazardous waste when it’s part of a shooting range that’s currently in use, though regulations do kick in when it’s time to abandon the range. And that’s not necessarily an oversight — typically, Landmeyer said, lead discharged in shooting ranges stays in the shooting range. 

“It really doesn’t migrate around unless you have really poor soils, very low pH,” he said. 

The soil on the range has never been tested, Manring said, but the report suggests that testing commence. Acidic soil can easily be made more alkaline by applying a high-pH material such as lime. 


Weighing the options 

The college hasn’t identified environmental concerns as an issue with the range, but representatives told commissioners they needed money to replace the bullet trap and re-route the entrance, which currently requires range users to drive through the treatment plant. 

It will take some doing to get commissioners’ support for a fix, though. SCC’s 25-year lease ends in 2021, and Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten isn’t confident that it will be renewed when that term ends. That area is growing in population, he said, and shooting ranges tend to elicit a not-in-my-backyard attitude. 

“I just think whoever’s around at that point seven years out, there will be a lot of pressure not to renew that lease,” Wooten said. “But at the same time, Southwestern has to have a facility. I don’t know that we can really turn our back on them.”

That question — of whether the shooting range will get to stay in that same facility — has commissioners questioning whether it’s worthwhile to sink $1.5 to $2 million into upgrades. 

“If we’re looking at five to seven years, a lease that may not be renewed and we’re looking at putting a million and a half dollars in it, I believe we could do something indoors just about as reasonable as trying to pacify everybody in the neighborhood seven years from now,” Chairman Jack Debnam said.

Wooten said he’s looking into per-square-foot pricing on indoor ranges, an early investigation to see whether that might be a better long-term investment. An indoor range, commissioners speculated, wouldn’t garner the NIMBY attitude that outdoor ones sometimes do. 

All in all, the commissioners aren’t enthusiastic about the upgrade’s price tag — “There are a lot of things the county is facing that I consider more important than this firing range,” Commissioner Vicki Greene said. 

But environmental concerns have not yet been part of the discussion. 

“If SCC encounters an environmental issue, then I’m sure they would be back in front of the commissioners if the issue had a large price or even a possible closure of the range,” Wooten said. “We’ll wait to hear from SCC as to their next steps.”

Leave a comment

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.