On Great Lakes, Worry Over Plan For U.S. Gunfire

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Published: October 16, 2006

Even in autumn, the cold, silent expanse of Lake Michigan defines this town, where pleasure boats glide into harbor, fishermen wait patiently for salmon and tourists peer up at the lighthouse.

But the United States Coast Guard has a new mission for the waters off of these quiet shores. For the first time, Coast Guard officials want to mount machine guns routinely on their cutters and small boats here and around all five of the Great Lakes as part of a program addressing the threats of terrorism after Sept. 11.

And, for the first time in memory, Coast Guard members plan to use a stretch of water at least five miles off this Michigan shore — and 33 other offshore spots near cities like Cleveland; Rochester; Milwaukee; Duluth, Minn.; and Gary, Ind. — as permanent, live fire shooting zones for training on their new 7.62 mm weapons, which can blast as many as 650 rounds a minute and send fire more than 4,000 yards.

The notion is so unusual that it prompted United States diplomats to negotiate with Canadian authorities in order to agree that it would not violate a 189-year-old treaty, signed after the War of 1812, limiting arms on the Great Lakes.

Many here in Grand Haven, a town whose history is so lovingly intertwined with the Coast Guard that it holds an annual festival celebrating the service branch, say they think of Coast Guard members mainly as the rugged sailors who race off to search for and save troubled boaters. But even here, in a town that calls itself Coast Guard City U.S.A., some say the thought of members firing machine guns anywhere near these waters strikes them as dangerous to ordinary boaters, potentially damaging to the Great Lakes’ ecosystem and, frankly, a somewhat surprising place to be bracing for terrorists.

You know exactly what’s going to happen with this, said Bob Foster, 58, who said he spends every chance he gets on the waters here. Some boater is going to inadvertently drive through the live fire zone and get blown out of the water.

Carole Loftis, the owner of Snug Harbor, a popular restaurant with windows on the water, said that although she certainly carried concerns, like most Americans, about terrorism, drunken boating seemed a more frequent threat around here. This seems a little like overkill, Ms. Loftis said of the shooting plans.

Despite complaints from some charter boat captains, environmental groups and city leaders around the Great Lakes, the Coast Guard defended the need to mount M-240B machine guns on its boats and to test fire them two or three times a year in safety zones, about 70 square miles each.

The Coast Guard has looked at an increased terrorist threat since 2001, Rear Adm. John E. Crowley Jr., commander of the Coast Guard district that oversees the Great Lakes, said in a telephone interview. I don’t know when or if something might happen on the Great Lakes, but I don’t want to learn the hard way.

Some members of the Coast Guard assigned to law enforcement duties always carried weapons, but most of those were personal semiautomatic pistols. Since the arrival of the boat-mounted machine guns, the Coast Guard has conducted 24 training sessions on the lakes this year, although it has halted the exercises temporarily after news of the program seeped out last month and, with it, a barrage of objection.

When I heard, I thought it was something from The Onion newspaper or an Internet hoax, said Mike Bradley, the mayor of Sarnia, Ontario, which sits beside Lake Huron, where 6 of the 34 live fire zones are planned. This whole thing was done way below the radar.

The Coast Guard’s plans for permanent training zones were published in the Federal Register on Aug. 1, along with the promise of a month for public comment, but city leaders and ordinary boaters said that most of them never came across the document and that the authorities failed to provide them with any other notice of live fire plans — a fact that left some saying they felt as though the Coast Guard, now part of the Department of Homeland Security, was trying quietly to slip the whole weapons program past them.

Herb Bergson, the mayor of Duluth, got a telephone call in September from a resident who said she was listening to her marine scanner, heard talk of shooting on Lake Superior and wanted the mayor to explain what was going on.

I didn’t know what to tell her, Mr. Bergson said. I was caught just flat-footed. No one told me, and they should have.

Coast Guard leaders — who have since announced nine public meetings in Great Lakes cities, starting Monday, and have extended until Nov. 13 the period for people to weigh in on the idea — acknowledge that they initially failed to publicize the weapons training program. I’ve got no good answer for that, said Lt. j.g. Ryan Barone, a spokesman.

But the plans themselves, which ultimately would mean machine guns mounted on the vessels of more than 50 Coast Guard units throughout the Great Lakes, were carefully conceived, Lieutenant Barone said. Information about the proposal and scheduled public meetings is at uscgd9safetyzones.com.

All of the proposed firing zones sit at least five nautical miles from shores and from Canadian waters, as well as far from commercial shipping lanes and sensitive marine areas, Lieutenant Barone said. During the training days, when Coast Guard gunners will shoot at floating foam buoys, other boaters will be notified on marine radio frequencies, he said, and every test will include a designated safety observer.

Admiral Crowley said, I don’t feel there’s a risk to anyone out there.

Around the Great Lakes, some people said they were supportive of the presence of machine guns and the planned tests. The risks of terrorism, they said, cannot be underestimated — even in small towns, even in the Upper Midwest. And as with extra airport safety measures, they said, the live fire tests may be inconvenient but they are needed.

Several ferry operators in Michigan, who carry cars and passengers across Lake Michigan, said they were satisfied that their customers would be safe. Ken Alvey, president of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, which represents some 80 marine businesses, said he was comfortable knowing that the Coast Guard members would practice on their new weapons.

To say we don’t have to worry about our open border with Canada would be foolish, Mr. Alvey said. You never know what avenue terrorists will take.

But others, especially recreational boaters and professional fishing guides, said they were worried. Though most emphasized their support and gratitude to the Coast Guard, they said they did not even listen to their radios much anymore (unless a storm is rolling in) and could miss warnings altogether.

Ron Mihevc, who takes customers fishing out of the harbor at Waukegan, Ill., said he feared that the planned firing zone near Waukegan sits right in the middle of a prime fishing spot that draws scores of fishermen. Kelly J. Campise, another Waukegan boat captain, said fishermen already were carrying their clients many miles into Lake Michigan in search of salmon and trout at great fuel expense; going still further away to avoid the firing zones would cost still more, he said.

An 89-page environmental study, commissioned by federal authorities, concluded that rounds left in the lakes from the Coast Guard exercises would cause no harm, but Hugh McDiarmid Jr., a spokesman for the Michigan Environmental Council, said a fuller environmental risk assessment, given the leadcontent of the rounds in particular, was needed.

For years, Coast Guard boats have been armed, and training has been conducted off of the coasts of this country, said Brad J. Kieserman, chief of the operations law group at Coast Guard headquarters.

On the Great Lakes, weapons training by military branches like the Navy has also occurred in years gone by, dating back to World War I and World War II. But in keeping with a treaty known as Rush-Bagot from 1817, Coast Guard vessels on the Great Lakes have historically not included naval armaments.

But in 2003, federal authorities sought an understanding with their Canadian counterparts about Rush-Bagot in preparation for mounting machine guns on cutters so that the Coast Guard could prevent terrorists or others engaged in criminal activities from crossing the United States-Canadian boundary by water, according to documents from the exchange between the two countries.

In recent days, though, some Canadian mayors, who said they had not heard of the plans until this fall, have objected vehemently. David Miller, the mayor of Toronto, said he worried about practical, safety aspects of the weapons plan and about the environment, but also about the precedent set for the lakes’ more than 94,000 square miles of water.

Our treaty had always said that the Great Lakes will not be militarized, Mr. Miller said. And in effect, this remilitarizes them in the name of a threat from 9/11.

Last edited by bs.   Page last modified on October 27, 2006

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