Surrendering to a barrage of complaints, the U.S. Coast Guard on Monday dropped plans to conduct routine target practice with boat-mounted machine guns in 34 areas throughout the Great Lakes, including a spot a few miles off the North Shore.
Coast Guard officials said they made a mistake by not adequately informing the public about their proposal, which was so unusual it required changes to a treaty with Canada that dates to the War of 1812.
Although the Coast Guard will keep M-240B machine guns mounted on its cutters and small boats, officials said the crews won’t be shooting live ammunition at floating targets in the lakes any time soon, if ever.
“We are committed to addressing the concerns that training be safe, preserve the diverse uses of the lakes and protect the environment,” said Rear Adm. John E. Crowley Jr., commander of the Coast Guard district that oversees the Great Lakes.
Boating groups and members of Congress had raised concerns that recreational sailors might unwittingly cross into the training zones or get hit by stray bullets. The 7.62-millimeter weapons can fire as many as 600 rounds a minute and send bullets more than two miles away.
Environmental groups, meanwhile, noted that firing as many as 430,000 lead bullets a year on the lakes would add more pollution to an already fragile ecosystem. The Coast Guard would have become one of the largest sources of toxic lead dumped into the lakes, which supply drinking water to millions of people in the U.S. and Canada.
Crowley reiterated a need to train his crews for potential terrorist attacks with live-fire exercises two or three times a year. But he and other Coast Guard officials hinted that any future training would involve fewer areas or possibly take place outside the Great Lakes.
“We know we need to better engage the American people on this issue,” said Lt. Greg Fondran, a spokesman in the Coast Guard’s Cleveland office. “We didn’t meet their expectations.”
The Coast Guard began the live-fire training this year with little notice, conducting 24 exercises. After witnesses inquired about the sound of gunfire, angry mayors and other public officials in the U.S. and Canada began complaining they had not been informed.
In August, the Coast Guard submitted rules that would have formally set aside 14 live-fire zones on Lake Michigan, as well as seven zones on Lake Superior, six on Lake Huron, four on Lake Erie and three on Lake Ontario.
Because the Coast Guard now is part of the Department of Homeland Security, it wasn’t required to hold public hearings or study potential environmental impacts.
Officials were poised to make the rules final when members of Congress stepped in, forcing the Coast Guard to accept public comments and hastily organize hearings.
More than 1,000 comments came in, and most were negative. Many came from charter boat captains who complained they had little information about the exercises and noted that some of the training zones were near prime fishing spots.
“We want them to have the training they say they need, but this could have created a whole bunch of problems,” said Jim Fenner, president of the Ludington (Mich.) Charter Boat Assn.
“I hope they’ve learned their lesson about taking us for granted.”