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National Guard firing ranges leave legacy of lead

U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Neal Mitchell
The National Guard Armory in Snohomish, Washington, being used as a barracks during the 2014 search for survivors of the Oso landslide. In 2016, tests found lead dust in the armory at up to 65 times federal safety standards.

The National Guard has closedfacilities across the country to the public because of lead contamination, following an investigationby The Oregonian newspaper.

Normally, the Guard rents out the buildings where it trains and practices, called armories, for community events, from weddings to Cub Scout sleepovers.

Earlier in 2016, the Washington National Guard closed at least nine armories to the public after years of efforts failed to get the lead out.

Armory rentals have been suspended for most of 2016 in Ephrata, Grandview, Kent, Montesano, Moses Lake, Olympia, Pasco, Snohomish and Walla Walla.

Military officials have known about — and in some cases tried to clean up — dangerous amounts of lead at armories for more than a decade. But the fine, toxic dust left by shooting in indoor firing ranges is difficult and expensive to clean up.

In the past year, tests of the floor of the old firing range at Montesano found lead at 16,000 micrograms per square foot — 400 times the current federal standard for cleanups. Levels in Olympia reached 125 times the standard; in Snohomish, they were 65 times too high, according to Guard documents obtained by The Oregonian.

Map data from The Oregonian

Those documents show that the firing range at the Kent armory was converted to storage for toys, backpacks and other materials given to families. A Facebook video posted by a Guard member in 2012 shows children singing "Jingle Bells" inside the armory before lining up to receive presents from someone dressed as Santa Claus.

Tests in December 2015 showed the entrance to the former firing range, cleaned and converted to storage years before, had lead 8.5 times higher than the level deemed acceptable.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Consultants in Dec. 2015 found lead on the floor of the former Kent firing range at 8.5 times the 40 ug/sq ft standard considered safe by the National Guard.", "fid": "132401", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201612/Kent340ug.jpg", "attribution": "Credit ALS Environmental"}]]"I get why the public might be concerned. We totally understand that," said Karina Shagren, a spokesperson for the Washington Military Department, which is in charge of the Washington National Guard. "We are doing the responsible thing and closing off these areas to employees and the public, and we're moving as quickly as possible to take care of this issue."

"We don't think there was any issue there [with children and lead dust] because the material was all enclosed," Lt. Col. Adam Iwaszuk said of the boxed-up children's materials.

Iwaszuk, who directs construction and facilities maintenance for the Washington Guard, said the converted room had been cleaned to federal standards a decade ago and the armory has been tested for lead annually since.

"A lot of other states are not doing anything remotely close to what we're doing," Iwaszuk said. "We're pioneering in this effort."

Unsafe and unusable

The hazards are not new: An audit by the Department of Defense's Inspector General in 1998 found that nearly 1,000 National Guard and Army Reserve indoor firing ranges were "unsafe and unusable" because of lead contamination.

Since then, The Oregonian found that armory cleanups have been sporadic, slow and poorly executed, often leaving unacceptable levels of lead in areas considered clean.

According to National Guard internal documents, health and safety concerns led the Guard to close its Kent firing range, in use since the early 1980s, in 2005. The following year, a contractor noticed “visible lead contamination on the outside of the building." The range's ventilation system had deposited lead dust onto the roof, the ground and storm drains near the building. The firing range reopened to shooting practice later in 2006, venting more lead dust into the air.

“The potential for additional penalties at the Kent site is high and the resulting fines could be excessive," Eugene Radcliff, then the Washington Military Department's toxic cleanup manager, warned in a memo. He said stormwater or prevailing northeast winds carrying lead to Sunnycrest Elementary next door “could potentially create a huge liability issue for the WMD.”

Children are especially sensitive to lead contamination. Even small exposures can lower their IQs, among other permanent damage.

"There is no safe level of lead exposure," toxicologist Steven Gilbert with the Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders in Seattle said.

Iwaszuk said soil tests showed no trace of lead more than a few feet from one of the building's downspouts, so he did not believe school officials were ever alerted.

Sunnycrest Elementary principal Rudy Baca could not be reached for comment.

Cleanup efforts at Kent did not always go smoothly: in 2007, one contractor mistakenly dug up another contractor's covered, lined pile of lead-contaminated dirt and used it as fill elsewhere on the Kent Readiness Center property, possibly exposing workers to lead dust. That soil was later dug up and hauled away for use in cement manufacturing.

Even the best-run cleanups are expensive — Iwaszuk said the most recently completed cleanup of the Olympia armory cost $200,000. Oregon Guard officials estimate that cleaning that state's armories will cost $21.6 million.

"We were one of the first states to aggressively go after the federal and state funds for this," Iwaszuk said. "I truly believe that we're in a lot better shape than a lot of other states in addressing this."

He said the latest lead cleaning of the Kent armory has been completed and the Washington National Guard expects to resume renting it out in January.

What is safe?

Washington Guard officials suspended rentals at armories where lead was present above the federal 40-microgram-per-square foot standard established by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2001. 

By almost any measure, that is a minute amount of lead: You could get a similar concentration of sugar by spreading a single-serving (3.5-gram) packet over half a football field, from the goal line to the 50-yard line.

But lead is such a powerful poison that concentrations well below two sugar packets per football field can inflict permanent brain damage on children who play on such surfaces, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The Washington Guard also sealed off areas with more than 200 micrograms per square foot from employees, based on workplace-safety recommendations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Those federal standards don't reflect the latest science and only "provide an illusion of safety," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.   

"If we're trying to protect children, they need to be lower," epidemiologist Bruce Lanphear at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, said. Lanphear said he'd like to see the standard lowered to 2.5 micrograms per square foot for surfaces that children might encounter.

If exposed to levels of lead dust the National Guard and the EPA consider acceptable, "about 1 in 5 kids would be lead poisoned," Lanphear said.

After children's health advocacy organizations' petitioned the EPA,the agency agreed to revise its outdated lead standards in 2009.

Seven years later, it has not done so.

2016 information sheet produced by the Washington National Guard on lead contamination at its armories

Year started with KUOW: 2009