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SCC gears up to get rid of lead contamination near shooting range

fr shootingrangeAfter measuring lead levels of more than 200 times the state limit for safety near its shooting range, Southwestern Community College is getting ready for some potentially pricy cleanup.

“The bottom line is if you shoot lead into soil, you’re going to have a lead issue,” said James Bevers, environmental project manager for ECS Carolinas, the company SCC is contracting with to develop a cleanup plan.

SCC has operated the shooting range, which is located on land leased from the county, for 30 years, never once cleaning the lead bullets out of the clay berm at the far end of the range. Over the years, the bank has accumulated an estimated 60 tons of lead, a fact brought to SCC’s attention in spring of 2014. Environmental Protection Agency rules don’t require cleanup at active shooting ranges, but after realizing the problem SCC took measures to keep lead from moving downhill, off-site. 

For an area of about 2,500 square feet just downhill from the range, however, those measures came too late. Testing showed that the soil — and water in the seasonal stream that flows nearby en route to the Tuckasegee River — had severely elevated levels of lead. 

“I think we’re kind of at the point of needing to move forward with some corrective actions,” County Manager Chuck Wooten told the Jackson County Board of Commissioners last week.  

ECS has come up with a plan that Bevers describes as simple, but not necessarily inexpensive. Basically, cleanup will involve taking the impacted soil, section by section, mixing it with a phosphate, taking it to a landfill, and replacing it with clean soil. 

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“It’s not a new process. It’s been used quite often,” said John Stewart, chief geologist with ECS. 

Unlike many other contaminants, lead doesn’t disperse quickly or easily through the environment. It binds with soil, so for the lead to move, the soil has to move. Unless, that is, the concentration gets too high. That’s when lead becomes more likely to be driven deeper and deeper in the soil as water moves through it, a process called leaching. For that reason, even landfills can’t take soil with lead concentration above a certain amount, but mixing the soil with phosphate gives it something to bind to, keeping it from leaching. 

“The lead doesn’t go away,” Stewart explained. “What it does is the lead adheres to the phosphate, chemically stays there, locks it so it cannot leach out.”

But it will likely cost a pretty penny to treat the estimated 270 cubic yards of soil that are going to need it. The project hasn’t gone out to bid yet, the job will likely cost between $100 to $200 per ton for the estimated 400 tons of soil — between $40,000 and $80,000. That’s an all-inclusive cost, however, that includes everything from clearing brush to treating the soil to dumping it in the landfill. 

The good news where cost is concerned, however, is that 270 cubic yards is likely a pretty solid estimate. Lead spreads downward, not laterally, and its spread on the site is limited by the rock layer that’s about five feet down.

The key, though, is to get it cleaned up fast, because right now lead-containing runoff from the contaminated area is heading straight to the Tuckasegee River, which is just about 15 or 20 feet away from the road that goes by the shooting range. The highest lead concentrations, Stewart said, are by the riverbank, where samples of the drainage area yielded readings of 365 milligrams per kilogram for the soil and 286 micrograms per liter for the surface water. The safe levels are 270 mg/kg and 25 µ/L, respectively. 

“There is concern about that, which is why we’re making them clean this up now,” said Roberta Proctor, the chemist for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality who is working with SCC on the issue. 

It’s possible that the work could be done by the end of the year, Stewart said, though it will all depend on the schedules of the contractors that bid and on how holidays affect the work. 

It’s not going to be the last commissioners hear of lead troubles at SCC. The school is working to institute Best Management Practices on the range itself to reduce need for more remediation down the road — one of the key recommendations is replacing the clay berm with sand, which is easier to periodically rid of lead — as well as to address the issue that prompted SCC to bring the subject of the shooting range up to commissioners in the first place: splashback in the berm. When they first broached the topic last spring, the concern was that the berm was so full of old bullets that some shots were ricocheting back toward the shooters. 

After the soil cleanup is done, McMahan said, the county will likely need to do something about the range itself. 

Which is itself a whole other discussion, because while SCC, as the lessee of the property, is technically the one responsible, it’s basically dependent on the county for the funds to make the cleanup happen. For community colleges — as well as, largely, K-12 schools — the state pays for staff and classroom needs, while the county foots the bill for facilities. 

“It really is Southwestern’s problem, but when it comes down to it, if there’s a problem it’s really our problem as well,” Wooten said. 

Unless the cleanup costs prove unprecedentedly low, SCC will likely look to the county for help. Which has some commissioners questioning if there’s a better way to run the range. 

“Obviously it’s a great service until it comes time to pay for the remediation. And who pays for that?” said Commissioner Vicki Greene. 

The range is used as a training ground for all sorts of law enforcement and security agencies. Everyone — from the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department to the Balsam Mountain Preserve security force — trains there. Use is free for state and local agencies, but federal agencies and private companies pay $70 per person, per day. 

The cleanup might be expensive, but the county doesn’t really have a choice other than to pay the bill. And when SCC’s lease is up in 2021, the school doesn’t really have a choice other than to continue using the property as a shooting range. It’s a service it needs to provide, and vacating the site would be hugely expensive, as that’s when all the EPA regulations regarding cleanup on the range itself would kick in. 

But there’s good news, Bevers said. Now that the school knows what the problem is and has been advised of the Best Management Practices it can use going forward, it’s unlikely to be hit with emergency cleanup tasks like this during the remaining life of the range.

“As long as they keep on top of that, there should be minimal amounts of future problems,” Bevers said. 


By the numbers

  • Soil samples for the area to be treated ranged from 9.9 to 58,000 milligrams per kilogram of lead. The safety threshold is 270 mg/kg. Of the 30 samples taken, 23 were above the threshold. 
  • Sediment samples along the drainage from the range to the Tuckasegee River ranged from 49.3 mg/kg to 902 mg/kg. Of the nine samples taken, five were above the safety threshold of 270 mg/kg. 
  • Surface water samples in the drainage ranged from less than 10 µ/L to 539 µ/L. Of the six samples taken, four were above the safety threshold of 25 µ/L. 

Source: ECS Carolina

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