A decades-old shooting range in Williston has once again come under fire from its neighbors, who blame the sportsman's club for dangerously high levels of lead that have shown up in their soil, drinking water, pond and the creek that runs across their property.
On Tuesday, Mona and Leo Boutin (pictured, at right), whose family has lived and farmed on the 50-acre property off Creamery Road in Williston for five generations, released the results of tests done last summer on their soil and wellwater. Those tests revealed lead levels that are twice as high as what's considered safe for raising livestock, and nearly seven times higher than the level considered safe for human consumption.
The recent tests, taken June 30 on Sucker Brook, are almost identical to the levels that showed up two years ago. As Andy Bromage reported in his July 13, 2011 story, "Long Shot: Bruce Ryan Took Aim at Montpelier Gun Club Pollution — and 16 Years later Found His Target," Williston's North Country Sportsman’s Club first caused alarm among neighbors in 2009 when water samples collected downstream from the range showed lead levels 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 on the grounds. However, lead bullets and shot are still used regularly at the range.
"We were told [by the state] not to worry about it" two years ago, says Mona Boutin, who now heads the citizens' group, Lead-Free Williston. "Well, that's fine if it isn't your water and it isn't your family that's drinking it. The time for concern is here and now."
Health experts warn that there is no safe level of human exposure to lead, which can build up in the human body and cause a host of problems, including high blood pressure, permanent kidney damage and cancer. Lead exposure is particularly dangerous to children, as it can cause developmental problems, lower IQs and serious neurological disorders.
High lead levels are also a problem for wildlife and livestock, and can result in reproductive disorders, including stillborn offspring. Water fowl, frogs and other amphibians are especially susceptible to lead shot, which they often mistake for food.
The Boutins, who live on the property with their daughter, Keri Waite, and their grandson, Phoenix, 3, now drink bottled water only and board their horse off-site throughout the winter. However, they have yet to get their own blood levels checked.
"I'm not sure I want to," admits Leo Boutin. "We drank water on this farm my whole life, and I'm 55."
The Boutins estimate that, based on the amount of visitors to the shooting range and the number of years it's been in operation, there are likely more than a million pounds of lead shot in the surrounding soil. Phone calls to the North Country Sportsman's Club went unanswered by the time this story was posted.
Jessica Edgerly with the environmental and public health group, Toxics Action Center, reports that the club did offer a four-part lead abatement plan when this problem first came to light two years ago. That plan includes monitoring the pH of the soil on the range, applying lime "if appropriate," monitoring the technology available to reclaim lead and finally, implementing lead-abatement "if feasible."
Yet despite such assurances, Mona Boutin complains that virtually nothing has been done to get the lead out of the soil or water, and neither the town nor the state have addressed the pollution, even though Sucker Brook is located in a state-designated "wellhead protection area." Last year, Boutin sent a letter to Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, but was told by one state official that "there's nothing we can do for you."
Dr. Robert Nesbit, a neighbor of the Boutins, expressed his impatience and frustration at both the sportsman's club and state officials for dragging their feet to address this significant public-health concern.
"This is a common-sense issue," said Nesbit, who works as a surgeon in Colchester. "Lead is a significant toxin and it makes no sense why [the club] is being careful about their statements. They have a mess. They created a mess. They need to step up and address it. The right amount of lead [exposure] is zero."