In defiance of a 2016 federal consent order that calls for penalties of $500 a day for violations, members of the Lansing Rod and Gun Club have continued to fire lead bullets above and into Salmon Creek, a major tributary to Cayuga Lake.
Hobby shooters have been doing so since the 1950s, pouring tons of lead shot into the creek over the decades in violation of state and federal law.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t enforced its own consent order, and the state Department of Environmental Protection has declined to crack down despite cries from local residents.
The controversy ramped up over Labor Day weekend after crews began clearing trees from gun club property in possible violation of local law — after the club withdrew its application in June for a town permit to do so.
“They’re thumbing their noses at all levels of government — and their neighbors,” Gay Nicholson said at a Lansing Town Board meeting Sept. 5. “I would like to see the town issue a stop-work order immediately.”
The town finally issued that order Sept. 11.
The club sits on a sharp bend in Salmon Creek less than 1,000 feet upstream from a popular swimming hole at Ludlowville Falls, seven miles north of Ithaca. The creek empties into Cayuga Lake, less than two miles to the west.
In September 2016, after local residents appealed the EPA to enforce the law, the agency entered into a legally binding consent order with the gun club.
That order required the club either to stop all firing with lead shot within 180 days or to relocate its ranges away from Salmon Creek within 18 months. The club chose the second option, but the deadline for compliance passed in March.
The club had taken steps late last year toward reorienting its trap shooting ranges by filing a site development plan application with the town.
In that application, J. Scott Hicks, the club representative who had signed the EPA consent order, acknowledged that the site had been “the subject of remediation for hazardous waste.” He elaborated: “EPA has directed the Rod & Gun to relocate the shooting ranges due to lead concerns in Salmon Creek.”
The club, which claims roughly 130 members, owns 113 acres in the wooded creekside valley. It operates a clubhouse and an outdoor pavilion with kitchen facilities suited to accommodate 400 people. It hosts community events like pancake breakfasts and horseshoe contests. It is generally more oriented toward shooting than fishing.
Nicholson, who holds a Ph.D and serves as president of Sustainable Tompkins, has calculated that club members fire up to 3.5 tons of lead a year toward the creek and marshlands. She based her figure on the club’s estimate of 100,000 rounds fired annually and the weight of a typical trap shell.
Studies have found that lead left to mix with soil at gun ranges may pose very serious hazards.
The club has not been inclined to replace lead shells with steel rounds or install so-called “shot curtains” intended to keep lead from mixing with soil, but it has expressed a willingness to address lead contamination.
In a December 2016 “Environmental Stewardship Plan,” it laid out the following goals:
— Re-orient shooting fields to avoid shooting over and into water and wetlands.
— Conduct lead recovery.
— Maintain soil pH between 6.5 and 8.5 in the shot-fall zone.
But the club has never attempted to recover fallen lead over its seven-decade existence, even after releasing its stewardship plan.
And efforts to reorient the ranges took a radical turn in June when the club’s law firm declared that the club was withdrawing its site plan application on the grounds that it was exempt — grandfathered — from local zoning law enacted after the founding of the club in 1955.
“No town permits or approvals, including a special use permit or site plan approval, are needed to allow the club to enjoy continued, unmolested use as-is,” Andrew Leja, a Syracuse partner at Barclay Damon LLC, wrote the Lansing Planning Board on June 20.
That stance leaves Lisa Ruzicka, a gun club neighbor, in a precarious position.
She wonders whether she should try to sell her home now, or simply quit raising vegetables in her garden.
One map filed with the aborted site plan application shows a new rifle range extending over a hill that rises immediately behind Ruzicka’s back porch and property line. While she can’t predict whether the club will follow through on the plan outlined on the map, she’s fretful that it has declared its unfettered right to do whatever it chooses.
“If they go through with this, it will be the end for me,” she said. “The lead dust will be everywhere. The contaminated runoff from the hill will run onto my property.”
Lead, even in low doses, harms the brain and the nervous system, especially in children. The federal government has banned its use in gasoline and paint, but in August 2010 it rejected a petition for a ban on lead shot and bullets.
That petition, filed by several environmental groups, had also called for bans on lead fishing sinkers. It had spelled out the risks for failing to act:
“Health effects from lead exposure can run the gamut from acute, paralytic poisoning and seizures to subtle, long-term mental impairment, miscarriage and impotence. Lead is a cumulative metabolic poison affecting a large number of biological functions including reproduction, growth, development, behavior and survival.
“Even low levels of exposure to lead can cause neurological damage, and there may be no safe level of lead in the body tissues of fetuses and young. Despite this knowledge, lead continues to be used in manufactured products, many of which are sources of toxic lead exposure to wildlife and to human beings.”
Less than three months after refusing to ban lead shot and bullets, the EPA also declined to impose a national ban on all “lead fishing gear,” including sinkers.
In the case of the Lansing Rod and Gun Club, the EPA hasn’t moved to enforce the conditions it imposed in the September 2016 consent order.
Town officials have said they don’t even know for sure whether the EPA has granted the gun club an extension on that agreement.
An Aug. 3 letter from EPA attorney Melva Hayden to Lansing Town Attorney Guy Krogh didn’t explicitly state the status of the consent order or the agency’s plans to enforce it. Instead, the letter asked the town to clarify “what permits the club needs to apply for in order to relocate the shooting ranges.”
But a DEC official recently shed some light on the EPA’s stance.
Matthew Marko, director of DEC’s Region 7, wrote in a Sept. 11 email to a Lansing resident: “Enforcement of this (2016 consent order) is still pending. The club has requested that EPA extend the compliance deadlines set forth in the order.”
But Marko did not commit the DEC to active enforcement.
“We have been told that (the Town of Lansing) may ask DEC to conduct air, water, and soil sampling on site. This site is already subject to an EPA Order, and under the current conditions any decision to sample would only be made following consultation with the EPA …
“In light of EPA’s pending Administrative Consent Order, DEC will not commence a separate enforcement proceeding.”
Meanwhile, the town sent letters on Sept. 10 to the DEC and the EPA notifying the agencies that the gun club’s recent clearing activities at the site violated rules requiring a stormwater permit for disturbances involving more than one acre.
In his letter to the DEC, Town Supervisor Ed LaVigne wrote of the clearing activities:
“This is likely a segmented part of a larger project, approximately two acres have been disturbed, and (the gun club) apparently has done this despite the lack of an updated EPA consent order and no reviews or approvals from the town, and no stormwater plans or controls in place, and all within a stone’s throw of Salmon Creek.”
Phone calls to the gun club office and Barclay Damon were not returned. Hicks and Barclay Damon partners Andrew Leja and Michael Oropallo, the gun club’s lead attorney, did not respond to emailed questions.
Peter Mantius is the founder of the Water Front, an all-digital publication dedicated to providing news and coverage of important environmental news in the Finger Lakes. His brings decades of reporting and editorial experience to his work, which includes frequent deep-dives into local, and regional issues. Contact him by clicking here or dropping him a line at [email protected]
Peter is a three-time Pulitzer nominated reporter covering environmental issues through his first-of-its-kind digital publication The Water Front. He’s won an array of Associated Press, UPI, and Society of Professional Journalist awards. His reporting on environmental issues continues to be featured in prominent New York publications and is available on FingerLakes1.com through an exclusive content partnership. Have a question or lead? Send it to [email protected].