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Merkley, Wyden want funds to clean up lead-tainted amories

WASHINGTON - Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden led a group of 10 senators calling on Senate Appropriations Committee leaders to dedicate adequate funding to cleaning up National Guard sites across the U.S. that have been contaminated by dangerous amounts of lead dust.

In addition to their National Guard uses, these armories and readiness centers are often used by the community for events such as job fairs and are rented out for weddings, baby showers, baptisms and more.

In December, The Oregonian published a series of investigative articles exposing serious lead dust contamination in more than 400 National Guard armories in 41 states, and there is evidence that the problem may be even more widespread.

Shortly after the articles were published, the National Guard Bureau ordered the immediate closure of all indoor firing ranges and the discontinuation of community events in toxic spaces until they have been properly decontaminated. However, the Senators noted in their letter, the Bureau has not yet clarified how federal funding will be allocated for these initiatives.

“There are indications that ultimately, state Adjutants General will be asked to divert existing federal funds for cleanup efforts,” the senators wrote in a letter to the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair and Vice-Chair.

“For example, the Oregon and Wisconsin National Guards, which have taken aggressive steps to mitigate lead dust exposure and put safety measures in place, have already exhausted their relevant FY17 federal funds and continue to pay out of pocket for remediation. Scarce local readiness funding will only help manage the problem—not solve it. Indeed, state Guards do not have the money to cover the costs of ideal lead abatement options like permanent remediation and encapsulation, which would total an estimated $4.8 million in Wisconsin alone.”

The senators also noted that the longer these sites are contaminated and unfit for public use, the longer states will have to forgo rental income that helps them cover their share of state-federal cost-sharing agreements for operating and maintaining National Guard sites.

“We urge you to provide adequate funding to support the success of state Adjutants General as they work to remove this threat to the health of our citizen soldiers, their families, and the general public from National Guard armories associated with indoor firing ranges,” the senators concluded.

In addition to Merkley and Wyden, the letter was signed by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Jon Tester (D-MT), Al Franken (D-MN), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Gary Peters (D-MI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Kamala Harris (D-CA).

The full text of the letter follows below.

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Dear Chairman Cochran and Vice Chairman Durbin:

As the Senate Appropriations Committee considers the Fiscal Year 2018 Department of Defense Appropriations bill, we write to request adequate funding for the National Guard Bureau’s efforts to remediate lead contamination in Army National Guard armories and readiness centers in several states across the country.

National Guard armories across our nation are used to maintain unit readiness, for recruiting prospective enlistments, and for sustaining family support programs.  Our armories provide a vital linkage for community events, job fairs, and deployment ceremonies. The armories also become the center of gravity for responding to natural disasters such as flooding, forest fires, and earthquakes. The buildings either become the staging area for the National Guard to assist first responders or they are available for emergency managers to establish warming shelters and logistics centers. Challenging state budgets also require the states to rent armories for concerts, weddings, baby showers, baptisms, and other events to assist in paying the state share of the National Guard Bureau Agreement. Yet, like other important national infrastructure, our armories are deteriorating and require significant maintenance. 

In December 2016, The Oregonian published a series of investigative articles exposing serious lead dust contamination from indoor firing ranges in more than 400 armories in 41 states. This is by no means comprehensive. Journalists requested records from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, but only 41 states returned documents. More troublingly, inspectors also found toxic material outside 192 of those contaminated firing ranges.  This might be the tip of the iceberg.  According to one article, more than 700 armories have not been inspected since 2012, despite requirements to do so.

This contamination potentially exposed Americans.  Poisonous lead powder coated “a Wisconsin armory classroom where pregnant women and mothers with infants learned about nutrition.” And, at two armories in Oregon, “parents unwittingly let infants crawl” on floors covered in lead at levels as high as 10 times the federal safety standard.

Shortly after the articles were published, the National Guard Bureau ordered the immediate closure of all indoor firing ranges and the discontinuation of community events in armories that still require lead remediation. The Bureau also ordered all active and former indoor firing ranges to be cleaned in accordance with standards set out in 2006, and noted that the cost of cleanup “would be 100 percent Federal share.” However, the Bureau has not yet clarified how federal funding will be allocated for these initiatives. There are indications that ultimately, state Adjutants General will be asked to divert existing federal funds for cleanup efforts. For example, the Oregon and Wisconsin National Guards, which have taken aggressive steps to mitigate lead dust exposure and put safety measures in place, have already exhausted their relevant FY17 federal funds and continue to pay out of pocket for remediation. Scarce local readiness funding will only help manage the problem—not solve it. Indeed, state Guards do not have the money to cover the costs of ideal lead abatement options like permanent remediation and encapsulation, which would total an estimated $4.8 million in Wisconsin alone.

On top of lead abatement costs, there are conversion costs to make the space usable (i.e. as a locker room or storage). The Bureau has stated that conversion costs will follow the normal 50/50 state to federal cost share. While a short-term solution of discontinuing the public use of the armories may address some of the immediate public health issue, it is likely to create a significant readiness challenge for Army National Guard units that will continue to deploy regardless of the size of their budgets.

Issues with contamination at National Guard armories are not a new problem. In 1998, the Department of Defense Inspector General found that Army National Guard soldiers and Army Reservists used unsafe indoor firing ranges contaminated by lead.   This issue will remain a public health challenge that state Adjutants General will have to fund using readiness dollars unless Congress and the Department of Defense clearly allocate funding exclusively for this purpose.

The closure of armories associated with indoor firing ranges also involves hidden costs. For instance, until lead abatement has been accomplished, many state military departments will be unable to rent or have the public access a number of its armories. This presents additional costs to states, as rentals are a key revenue stream, allowing states like Oregon to help self-fund the required 50 percent state-share of armories’ operational costs. Just in Oregon, the state is on track to lose approximately $300,000 in revenue for 2016-2017 due to lead-related closures. Thus, even without diverting funds, the lead contamination problem is already hurting existing funding.

As you begin to consider the Fiscal Year 2018 Department of Defense Appropriations bill, we urge you to provide adequate funding to support the success of state Adjutants General as they work to remove this threat to the health of our citizen soldiers, their families, and the general public from National Guard armories associated with indoor firing ranges.

Thank you for your consideration.


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