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The Barnstable County Board of Regional Commissioners voted unanimously on Wednesday, September 15, to send a pair of letters that threaten legal action over the proposed construction of a multipurpose machine gun range on Joint Base Cape Cod.
The letters, one of which describes the project as “illegal,” allege that the Massachusetts Army National Guard failed to comply with permitting requirements and state laws and, if constructed, the range “would threaten drinking water and destroy valuable wildlife habitat.”
Addressed to members of the state’s Environmental Management Commission—the regulatory body tasked with review of projects proposed on the 15,000-acre Upper Cape Water Supply Reserve on the base—the letters call on the commission to reject the project. The sole-source aquifer beneath the reserve provides as much as 3 million gallons of clean drinking water per day to the towns of Bourne, Falmouth, Mashpee and Sandwich.
As proposed, the eight-lane range would be used for military training with weapons including grenade launchers, pistols, shotguns and machine guns. With 800-meter lanes and several support buildings, the $11.5 million project would alter about 200 acres of land and require clearing of about 170 acres of trees. An additional 5,000 acres would be designated as Surface Danger Zones where projectiles could fall.
“The Massachusetts National Guard will review the letters sent by the [County] Commission and does not comment on potential litigation,” a Massachusetts National Guard spokesperson said.
For months, the gun range project has come under fire from local environmental organizations. Many residents have also voiced opposition to the project at rallies and public meetings.
The letters, one written by the county commissioners and the other by lawyers they retained from the environmental law firm McGregor & Legere, note significant environmental harm from historic military activities on the base.
About 66 billion gallons of water have been contaminated by military activities at the base, the letter written by McGregor & Legere said. The cleanup costs through the federal Superfund program have exceeded $1.2 billion.
“The proponents of the project have a history of hiding or covering up their proposals and opposing efforts by officials and environmental regulatory agencies—including the Environmental Protection Agency—to investigate and remediate groundwater contamination from previous Army National Guard activities,” the county commissioners allege in their letter. “Most of the improvements to natural resource management and cleanup of groundwater pollution have been the result of pressure and enforcement action from environmental agencies.”
Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution—which protects conservation lands in the state—is among the requirements that the county commissioners and their lawyers accuse the Army National Guard of not complying with. The area where the gun range is proposed is considered public conservation land under the 2002 state law that established the Upper Cape Water Supply Reserve.
“The project requires, but has not received, a two-thirds vote of the state Legislature under Article 97 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution,” the McGregor & Legere letter said.
The letter from the lawyers contends that the gun range project “proposes a banned activity within Camp Edwards and the reserve.”
Environmental performance standards established in 2017 for the Army National Guard’s operations at Camp Edwards list artillery fire as a banned military training activity, the McGregor & Legere letter said.
The letter from the lawyers also alleges that the project has failed to comply with various other regulatory requirements, including the state’s Groundwater Protection Policy, and requires further review under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act.
“The process for reviewing the project lacks transparency and, according to our special counsel, the project as proposed is illegal as it is inconsistent with the Act Establishing the Upper Cape Water Supply among other laws,” the county commissioners said in their letter.
In public statements and forums, officials from the Guard have said the gun range project is necessary because a multipurpose firing range does not exist within Massachusetts and soldiers must travel out of state to train.
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