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SCC seeks DENR input in shooting range management

fr shootingrangeSouthwestern Community College is gearing up for some soil testing following a meeting with Robin Proctor, environmental chemist with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, on Tuesday. SCC had taken the initiative to call the meeting as plans to improve its shooting range brought up the fact that an estimated 60 tons of lead shot have accumulated in the range’s clay berm in the 30 years it’s been in use. 

“Basically, as we move forward with the improvements to the range to improve the safety features of the range, any time that you start deciding to remove lead or anything like that, we felt it would be important that we include DENR in that conversation as well to make sure we’re complying with any regulations that are out there,” said Curtis Dowdle, dean of public safety training. 

SCC had originally contacted the Environmental Protection Agency, which referred them to DENR. The EPA has a guidebook recommending best management practices for range operation, but ranges don’t fall under hazardous waste regulation as long as they’re in use. For that reason, Proctor said, range operators “very, very, very rarely” contact DENR asking for input. 

Proctor visited the range and found “a very nicely set up range with very little problems with runoff or anything.” The lead in the berm isn’t causing a problem now, she said, but SCC will test the soil surrounding the berm to ensure that lead isn’t leaching. The college will consult with DENR again in a few weeks when the results come back.

SCC had approached Jackson County commissioners at their April 21 work session to request $1.5 to $2 million to install a new backstop at the range and construct a new entrance road so that range users don’t have to travel through the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Wastewater Treatment Plant to reach it. 

The new backstop is necessary, SCC said, because a buildup of lead in the berm was causing “splashback” when students in the college’s law enforcement training program and officers using the range to recertify fired into pockets of bullets already lodged in the bank, causing a ricochet effect. 

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The college has leased the range since 1996, and it was built in the 1980s. In the decades since, no lead has been removed from the property. 

“That’s pretty standard for ranges,” Proctor said. “Most firing ranges, no one in the past really even thought that it was a problem.”

“We have talked to companies a few years ago about removing lead, but because of the clay it is very work-intensive, a tedious task,” Dowdle said. “It’s very hard to move the lead out of a clay embankment.” 

Unless it’s being actively bathed in water, lead isn’t a very mobile substance, but lead poisoning can be debilitating or deadly. In a report SCC ordered from the Sylva-based engineering firm Lofquist and Associates last year to assess the shooting range situation, lead came up. Lofquist recommended that the college take measures to reduce water contact with discharged bullets and periodically test the soil’s pH to make sure it’s not too acidic, since acid environments cause lead to leach more easily. The meeting with DENR was a first step toward addressing those issues, or at least finding out if there are any issues in need of addressing. 

“We’re just trying to be good neighbors,” Dowdle said, “just to make sure we’re following the recommendations.”

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