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Plans to conduct machine-gun exercises on Great Lakes draws fire

By IBI Magazine/Michael Verdon

The US Coast Guard's plans to establish 34 live-fire zones in the Great Lakes has attracted a firestorm of criticism from boaters, US mayors and a Canadian town council that is threatening to bring in Canadian diplomats to protest the terms of a treaty signed in 1812.

The US Coast Guard announced plans in the August 1, 2006 Federal Register to establish 34 zones throughout the Great Lakes, near such cities as Cleveland, Ohio; Rochester, NY; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Duluth, Minnesota; and Gary, Indiana, as permanent, live-fire shooting zones for training on new 7.62mm cutter-mounted machine guns that fire 650 rounds a minute at more than 4,000 yards.

Local politicians and members of the boating community have complained loudly that the firing ranges were not made public knowledge early enough. An outcry among Great Lakes communities has prompted the US Coast Guard to hold a series of public hearings and postpone further trainings.

But despite complaints from some charter boat captains, environmental groups and city leaders, Rear Admiral John Crowley Jr, commander of the Coast Guard District for the Great Lakes, defended mounting M-240B machine guns on its boats and test-firing them a few times a year in "safety zones", about 70 square miles each, about eight miles off the shoreline.

"The Coast Guard has looked at an increased terrorist threat since 2001," Crowley told the Grand Rapids Press. "I don't know when or if something might happen on the Great Lakes, but I don't want to learn the hard way."

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

"When I heard, I thought it was an Internet hoax," said Mike Bradley, the mayor of Sarnia, Ontario, which sits beside Lake Huron, where six of the 34 live-fire zones are planned. "This whole thing was done way below the radar."

Last Tuesday, Kingston, Ontario's city council passed a resolution that officially condemned the lack of consultation. It raises concerns over possible water quality problems caused by the lead ammunition, and damage to the recreational boating industry. The Kingston document called on nearby communities to adopt similar resolutions, and the town council plans to organize trips to the public hearings, which are all being held in the US.

Hugh Segal, a member of the Canadian parliament and Kingston resident, told the Canadian press that the lack of Canadian consultation is an affront to the naval history the two countries share. "While the Americans may be within their rights to initiate fire-range activities, I think normative diplomatic relations between the two countries should call for, and demand, that there be consultation," Segal told the news service.

"The city of Kingston and many other waterfront communities enjoy the benefit of a vibrant recreational boating and fishing industry as well as the benefits of a good quality and ample source for municipal drinking water," read a report from Kingston environment director Paul MacLatchey. "The United States Coast Guard plans for live-fire exercises may place these benefits at risk."

The arming of US Coast Guard vessels may violate a treaty signed just after the War of 1812 by the United States and Great Britain that limits arms on the Great Lakes. Toronto Mayor David Miller said he worried 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," Miller said. "And in effect, this remilitarizes them in the name of a threat from 9/11."

Opposition to the plan has been voiced by a number of mayors as well as several US Congressmen.

The firing plans have drawn mixed reactions in the boating community. "You know exactly what's going to happen with this," Bob Foster, a Grand Haven, Michigan resident told the Grand Rapids Press. "Some boater is going to inadvertently drive through the live-fire zone and get blown out of the water."

Carole Loftis, the owner of a waterside restaurant in Grand Haven said she shared concerns, like most Americans, about terrorism. But drunken boating seemed a more frequent threat. "This seems a little like overkill," she said of the shooting plans.

Ken Alvey, president of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, which represents about 80 marine businesses, told the International Herald Tribune that he was comfortable knowing that the Coast Guard would practice on their new weapons. "To say we don't have to worry about our open border with Canada would be foolish," he told the paper. "You never know what avenue terrorists will take."

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, said a Coast Guard spokesman. "I don't feel there's a risk to anyone out there," added Rear Admiral Crowley.

Public comment on the firing zones will continue through November 9.

(30 October 2006)

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