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Bernie Sanders

Long Shot

Bruce Ryan took aim at Montpelier Gun Club pollution - and 16 years later found his target


Published July 13, 2011 at 9:56 a.m.

Bruce Ryan was trout fishing on the Winooski River in 1995 when he noticed something sparkling on the banks. Looking closely, he observed a thick layer of spent shotgun pellets — all made of lead — and presumed they came from the adjacent Montpelier Gun Club, where sport shooters have been blasting clay pigeons out of the sky since 1895.

Back at his home in Highgate Center, Ryan sat down and wrote a letter to the club’s directors, describing what he had found near their property. His letter warned of the health hazards lead poses to humans and waterfowl and suggested the club was in violation of the federal Clean Water Act by allowing lead shot to enter the river.

A few days later, Ryan wrote another letter about the shooting range’s lead problem — this one to his congressman, Bernie Sanders. Then he wrote to then-governor Howard Dean, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Humane Society, the amateur Trapshooting Association, and even Nancy Pelosi.

Over the next 16 years, Ryan waged a one-man campaign against the Montpelier Gun Club. He mailed literally hundreds of old-fashioned letters — many accompanied by studies on lead toxicity, newspaper clippings and pages of relevant case law — imploring officials to put a stop to the club’s polluting ways. He collected water and soil samples near the club and had them tested at a private lab. He placed poster-sized photographs of the lead-covered riverbanks on his front lawn for all passersby to see.

Reply letters, when they came, were often polite brush-offs or referrals to other government agencies. Even after Vermont environmental regulators inspected the club and observed the lead-covered riverbanks for themselves, the toxic pellets continued to rain down.

Then, in April of this year, Ryan got the letter he had awaited for more than a decade. It was from the EPA, informing him the agency had issued a notice of violation and order for compliance to the Montpelier Gun Club — a rare event. The order requires the club to construct a physical barrier to prevent lead shot from entering the Winooski River and its tributaries. By the end of 2011, the club must submit to the EPA and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation a plan, schedule and cost estimate for removal of all lead shot from the banks of the Winooski.

The enforcement has delayed the club’s seasonal opening. Last week, the range remained closed as contractors installed huge posts that will hold a 400-foot-long shot-containment curtain meant to block lead pellets from sailing into the river.

For Ryan, this is a moment of pure vindication.

“Persistent little shit, ain’t I?” says Ryan, a spry 69-year-old dressed for a recent interview in threadbare blue jeans and a Buckmasters baseball hat. “I don’t give up. I know one person can make a difference.”

At a time when high-priced lobbyists and politically connected interest groups can seem like the only parties capable of spurring government to action, Ryan offers a striking example of the power of one person to get things done. And to do so with little more than a computer, a telephone and sheer doggedness.

As his deer-hunting cap suggests, Ryan isn’t some antigun peacenik or granola-munching tree hugger. He’s a lifelong gun owner and an accomplished trap shooter with a wall of trophies to prove it. For decades, he was a member, officer and part owner of the Singletary Rod & Gun Club in Oxford, Mass., a sportsman’s association with a trapshooting range and trout pond. His son, Bruce A. Ryan II, became the Massachusetts state trapshooting champion at the age of 14 under his father’s tutelage.

But that all changed one morning in 1988, when Ryan and a pal were duck hunting in wetlands behind their club’s shooting range. When they cut open one of the birds they’d bagged, they found the duck’s gizzard full of lead shotgun pellets it had ingested. Ryan suddenly saw the ramifications of sport shooting in a whole new light.

Shortly thereafter, in 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would enact a nationwide ban on lead shot in waterfowl hunting after studies showed that lead poisoning was a serious problem for these birds. Ducks, for instance, grub for food on the bottom of lakes, streams and wetlands and ingest gravel to help grind it for digestion. When they ingest lead shot pellets instead, the results can be fatal.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, one study estimated that 2 to 3 percent of the North American waterfowl population was killed annually by lead poisoning between 1938 and 1954. By 2000, that number had dropped considerably, and researchers declared that the lead-shot ban had spared “millions” of waterfowl from premature death by lead poisoning.

Of course, lead is also a threat to humans. The EPA considers it a “toxic pollutant” that can cause death, disease or genetic mutations following exposure or ingestion. When left in soil of neutral pH, lead generally does not corrode or migrate. But in water, it can pose a hazard to both wild birds and our supply of drinking water.

Until he shot the lead-stuffed duck, Ryan had been skeptical of the warnings about waterfowl eating shotgun pellets. He hadn’t been concerned about lead’s impact on human health, either. But that changed after numerous trapshooting friends, and his own son, were diagnosed with cancer; his son died from it at age 35. Ryan became increasingly convinced that lead was to blame.

So, in 1988, he wrote a letter to the Singletary Rod & Gun Club’s directors asking them to ban lead from the firing range and to post a sign at the trout pond that read, “Warning: do not eat the fish caught from this pond. They may contain toxic substances hazardous to your health.”

Not surprisingly, that touched off a bitter feud between Ryan and club leadership. Accusations flew back and forth in letters and paid newspaper advertisements. State and federal agencies were carpet-bombed with letters from Ryan pleading for their intervention. Ultimately, the club revoked Ryan’s membership, which he had held since receiving it from his father at age 15.

But eight years after that setback, Ryan — who moved to Vermont in the interim — claimed victory. The town of Oxford, using information he had supplied, issued the club a cease-and-desist order. Later, at the state’s insistence, the club agreed to install an impervious cap over the lead-contaminated area, restore damaged wetlands and drill wells where environmental officials could test for water contamination.

Every scrap of paper from that saga is documented in a homemade “autobiography” that Ryan bound together and titled The Unseen and Ignored Hidden Danger: Lead Shot & Target Club Contamination at Trap & Skeet Shooting Ranges.

To call Ryan’s antilead efforts a crusade might be an understatement. Since retiring from his job as a regional maintenance supervisor at F.W. Woolworth Co., Ryan has devoted himself wholly to getting the lead out of shooting ranges.

An entire room of his modest raised ranch, where he lives with his wife, is devoted to the cause. On the walls are poster-sized photos he’s taken of the club while standing knee-deep in the Winooski River. When he goes near the club, he wears a white hard hat with the words Lead Research on it, in case stray pellets rain on him. His email address is [email protected], and his bookshelves are stacked with fat binders that contain every email, letter and document from his 23-year campaign.

The back of Ryan’s autobiography bears an author’s quote that sums up his motivation: “If, through my own efforts of lead research, I can save but one human being from the perils of lead poisoning, or the ravages of cancer, or save but one duck, also from the perils of lead poisoning, then I, also a human being, have served my purpose on earth.”

Fittingly, news of the EPA’s enforcement action came to Seven Days in an unsolicited letter from Ryan. Attached to the seven-page document was a yellow Post-It note on which he had scribbled: “Here are the final results of my hard work.”

Ryan’s persistence is impressive in itself, but it raises a question. Why did it take the government so long to stop activity that the EPA now calls a clear violation of the Clean Water Act? The answer depends on whom you ask.

Ryan believes that Vermont environmental officials simply lacked the will to crack down on a serial polluter and preferred to seek voluntary compliance, even if it was excruciatingly slow (in his view) in coming. State officials counter that soil samples and water from the river and neighboring wells had been tested and found to be safe. For their part, gun-club leaders say they were unaware lead shot was reaching the river until Ryan told them, and have since moved as quickly as they could to remedy the situation given the snarl of zoning and other regulations involved.

What’s clear is this: Officials from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources first visited the club in the late 1990s in response to Ryan’s complaints. While they did find lead shotgun pellets in the river, the agency decided against conducting an extensive — and expensive — water-quality assessment because no lead was detected in neighborhood wells and because the quantity of pellets was deemed “unlikely” to affect water quality negatively. Plus, the gun club agreed to close the shooting lane closest to the river and plant a row of spruce trees to “screen out” lead shot.

In a 2001 letter to Ryan from the DEC’s Waste Management Division, Peter W. Marshall wrote that the situation “does not present an imminent threat to the environment.” Then he cited what may have been a more pressing reason for lack of enforcement: “We do not have sufficient resources to address this type of facility at the time.”

It’s the same story today. Tami Wuestenberg, who works in the DEC’s Waste Management Division, explains that the agency’s approach is more carrot than stick. That means offering free seminars and government grants to gun clubs that voluntarily adopt “best management practices” outlined by the EPA or the Interstate Technology & Regulatory Council, such as not shooting into water and maintaining constant pH in soil to ensure lead shot doesn’t corrode or migrate. Enforcement is expensive and time consuming and requires consistent follow-through, Wuestenberg says.

“Vermont state government doesn’t have the resources to do that,” Wuestenberg says. “The sportsmen, they’re trying to do the right thing. They’re good stewards of the land, and they just need to be educated on what is the best thing for them to do.”

Complicating the situation are federal rules that exempt lead ammunition from regulation when it’s being used for its “intended purpose,” i.e., for shooting clay pigeons. The moment a firing range shuts down or is abandoned, however, the property would almost instantly become a hazardous waste site under strict supervision from the state. It’s a rule that Wuestenberg calls “a crazy loophole.”

Voluntary compliance wasn’t good enough for Ryan. In 2002, he brought a citizen lawsuit against the club under the federal Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Using back-of-the-napkin math, Ryan estimated that during a single three-day event, the Vermont State Shoot, sport shooters had dropped 6539 pounds of lead shot and 20,343 pounds of target debris “up to, into and across” the river. The club disputed Ryan’s figures as pure speculation.

Ryan also commissioned independent lab tests of soil samples he collected from the river banks, some of which showed levels of arsenic, a byproduct of lead shot, beyond what he says the EPA considers safe, though the courts could not corroborate that. He fought the case “pro se,” meaning without the assistance of a lawyer.

“I prefer to work alone,” he comments. “Why do I need to pay a lawyer $160 an hour to say the same damn words that I’m gonna say?”

Citing the 2001 letter from the DEC’s Marshall, the gun club’s lawyers shot back that the state’s sampling of neighboring water wells at a half dozen nearby houses had turned up no lead and that “knowledgeable” state personnel had investigated the matter and determined the club was “unlikely to have undue adverse impact on water quality.”

Amazingly, Ryan scored a partial victory in the case when a federal judge ordered the club to halt shooting activities until it obtained a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit — a demand the state had tried, and failed, to enforce, according to Wuestenberg. By 2004, however, Ryan was running out of funds, and he had to abandon the case before the permit could be exacted.

That wasn’t the end. A few years later, a group of unnamed “concerned citizens” brought the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation information that led the agency to conduct another assessment of the club in 2006 and 2007. The investigation aimed to determine whether lead and arsenic levels were elevated as a result of the shooting range and, if so, whether those levels posed an “unacceptable risk” to the Winooski River. DEC scientists sampled water, sediment and macroinvertebrates from three locations near the club.

Lead and arsenic were present in the samples, but well within the state’s acceptable levels. Walking the river banks, however, the scientists found spent lead shot, leading them to write that the club should adopt “appropriate management practices” to prevent lead from going into the river.

By 2010, the club had qualified for a $45,000 federal grant to help it fulfill the terms of a voluntary lead-management plan that involved reclaiming spent shot from its firing range and building a containment curtain to catch the pellets. The club had earlier pledged to begin reclamation in 2008 and have the curtain installed by October 2009, but club leaders say the project was delayed pending local zoning approvals and federal permits. When those deadlines came and went with neither job done, state officials warned the club it risked violating state law, but they initiated no enforcement action. Meanwhile, the shooting went on unabated.

Finally, the EPA issued its enforcement order after two inspectors visited the club last May and found insufficient progress, says Denny Dart, manager of the Drinking Water Enforcement Program’s Technical Unit for EPA’s New England office in Boston. Such an action is a relative rarity; Dart says the EPA initiates fewer than 20 such enforcements each year in the six New England states.

The reason the agency got involved in this one? “We were tracking it, and it seemed like the club was taking its time,” Dart says diplomatically. “And we just decided to go.”

As part of its enforcement action, the EPA is required to estimate the level of pollution at the site, in this case the amount of lead discharged on club grounds. If accurate, the estimate is eye popping: 180,000 pounds, or 90 tons, per year.

Why didn’t the EPA step in sooner? “We tend to defer to the state when a state is taking action,” Dart says. “But when a state’s action isn’t getting the kind of a results the state hoped for, we can always get involved.”

EPA crackdowns on shooting ranges may be uncommon, but conflicts over Vermont gun clubs are not. In gun-loving Vermont, firing ranges serve a crucial need for sportsmen, hunters and law-enforcement professionals who need a safe and legal place to practice target shooting. But the sheer volume of lead shot going into the ground — or, in some cases, the water — poses potentially serious environmental problems. Several ranges have found themselves caught in the crossfire between gun owners and neighbors or environmentalists.

In Williston, the North Country Sportsman’s Club came under fire from neighbors in 2009 after water samples collected downstream from the range showed lead levels that were almost twice the safe limit for livestock and just shy of what health experts deem “the upper limit for toxic substances in water.” The firing range has since received a federal grant, funded through an excise tax on firearms and ammunition, to realign shooting alleys and plan for reclaiming spent lead from the grounds.

In Shaftsbury, in southern Vermont, neighbors have waged a largely losing battle to get the Hale Mountain Fish & Game Club to secure zoning and Act 250 approvals for a series of unpermitted expansions and improvements the club made over several years. Owen Beauchesne, a farmer who lives near the club, followed the course of Ryan’s lawsuit against the Montpelier Gun Club and said it provides a valuable legal resource for his own range-related struggle.

“Bruce is an advocate for all those silent people,” says Beauchesne, who has never met Ryan in person but praises him for “all the work he’s done to get these people to pay attention.”

The 50-member Montpelier Gun Club occupies a spit of land between the Winooski and Stevens Branch rivers off Goodnow Road in Berlin. Milan Lawson, the club’s vice president, reiterates that members were unaware shot was ending up in the river until Ryan brought it to their attention with his early letters. After he did, Lawson says the club sought to address the problem.

“When the complaint first surfaced, we didn’t have a good management practice in mind,” Lawson says. “It was trial and error to try to figure out how to reconfigure our fields. It wasn’t really until late in the game, 10 years after the first complaint was filed, that a best management practice surfaced.”

Lawson also attributes the delays to red tape; building the shot curtain and excavating lead require sign-offs from local and federal agencies that took time to secure. Because the club occupies land that historians believed may have been a prehistoric campground, Lawson says, its leaders even had to contract an archaeologist to perform a dig, which turned up nothing but old nails.

Along with building the shot curtain, the club recently hired a contractor to dig up and remove all the lead shot from the grounds — 290,000 pounds’ worth, which will be sold to smelters.

All that clean-up work had already delayed the club’s opening for the season when flash floods ripped through the area on May 26, depositing four inches of mud on the facility. Now, Lawson says, he just hopes to open in time for the club’s biggest event of the year, the three-day Vermont State Shoot at the end of July, which attracts up to 200 shooters.

Even with the federal grant money, Lawson says the added costs are “significant” for the club, necessitating a hefty loan from People’s United Bank. But he hardly sounds angry at Ryan. In fact, Lawson sounds almost appreciative. “You’ve got to hand it to Bruce if he discovered a problem, regardless of his reasons,” says Lawson. “We’re taking care of it.”

The Montpelier Gun Club’s lawyers weren’t always so friendly. Three times, club lawyers sent Ryan a “Notice Against Trespass” warning that he would be prosecuted for setting foot on club property. The penalty for criminal trespass, one letter noted, was up to three months in jail and $500 in fines. Ryan, who read the first notice and ripped up the next two without opening the envelopes, insists he never trespassed on the property but simply observed the club from the river.

“I know the public trust doctrine,” he says. “I had a right to walk that river up to the high-water mark.”

Some neighbors of the club also view Ryan as an interloper. Marilyn Miller, whose backyard overlooks the shooting range, refers to him as “little Mr. Busybody, who doesn’t seem to have anything else to do than drive around causing trouble for other people who are minding their own damn business.”

Miller, who has lived adjacent to the club with her husband and two children since 1980, recalls that Ryan came and asked them to have their well water tested. Her response was to tell him to “stay the hell off our property.”

“Mr. Ryan has tried several times, going around trying to get people to get their knickers all in a twist about it,” Miller says. “We had our well water tested years ago. We’re fine. My kids are 30 and 26, and they’re in good health.” In fact, the club gets its water from the Millers’ well, she says.

Miller says members of the club have “never been anything but thoughtful, considerate and kind. They hired our kids to work for them. They take incredibly good care of their property. Obviously, I don’t have picnics on the nights that they have shoots, but they don’t shoot all that often.”

That kind of opposition has hardly deterred Ryan or made him question the rightness of his quest. Today, Bruce Ryan’s face breaks into a wide grin when he talks about the first letter he wrote back in 1995. It took a hell of a long time to bear fruit, he says, but the wait was well worth it. Then his face turns serious as he delivers a stern warning.

“If I go down there and find one new pellet in the river, they’re done,” Ryan says. “This is gonna start all over again.”