By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
CHICAGO, Dec. 18 -- The U.S. Coast Guard said Monday that it has withdrawn a proposal to conduct target practice with machine guns in 34 zones in the Great Lakes.
Responding to widespread complaints about safety and potential damage to the environment, including criticism from the mayors of 80 Great Lakes cities, the Coast Guard's regional commander called the original plan "unsatisfactory."
Rear Adm. John E. Crowley Jr. did not rule out making a new proposal for live-fire zones, which the Coast Guard has described as important to a post-9/11 mission of protecting the United States from terrorists infiltrating from Canada.
"I intend to reconsider the number, frequency of use and location of water training areas, as well as other concerns raised by the public," said Crowley, the Cleveland-based regional Coast Guard commander. "I am also committed to pursuing environmentally friendly alternatives to the lead ammunition we currently use."
Earlier this year, the Coast Guard conducted 24 live-firing exercises in the lakes, but it suspended the program in September because of a public outcry.
"There are some real basic questions like: Why do we need this now?" said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), co-chairman of the Northern Border Caucus. "There is no imminent threat across our Great Lakes that would mean we'd have to go to this arming of the Great Lakes."
Critics also worried that the proposal did not include adequate plans to notify boaters of the risk of bullets, which can travel more than two miles. F. Ned Dikmen, chairman of the Great Lakes Boating Federation, said that boaters "would have been in the line of fire" and that "the boaters would have no clue what they should listen for."
Officials in Canada, a nation that was part of an 1817 agreement limiting the use of arms in the Great Lakes, also balked.
"The Coast Guard rearming sent a very bad message that the U.S. considers Canada to be a risk rather than a neighbor," Toronto Mayor David Miller said. "The Coast Guard's announcement today is a sign that perhaps that's being reevaluated."
Coast Guard officials have promised that any future proposal for live-fire training would include public input and congressional oversight.
"If we introduced another proposal, we would do an outreach, look for public input, work with our stakeholders and elected officials, and see if we could come to a solution that works for all of us," said Robert Lanier, a Coast Guard spokesman. "We know we definitely have to have our men and women trained on the equipment we have."
When opposition built, the Coast Guard initially defended the live-fire proposal, arguing that the zones were essential for training members on M-240B machine guns. The areas would be at least five miles off the shore and would be used perhaps two to three times a year.
But "the opposition far outweighed support," said George Heartwell, the mayor of Grand Rapids, Mich. "I think they made a good decision. They listened to the people and backed off."
Some residents and activists took the Coast Guard's side, suggesting that modifications could be made to accommodate supporters and critics.
"We're at war, and this country doesn't realize it," said Dan Thomas, president of the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council. "Sure I'm concerned about the safety and welfare of our environmental resources. But if we can't use those resources because we're not alive, that's another big concern."