A federal agency finally has published an investigation into lead contamination caused by target shooting on public lands in Arizona, two years after investigators substantiated several concerns raised by a whistleblower.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel made the allegations and investigation public last week as part of the process of closing the case. The move represents a small victory for the people who pushed for the OSC to wrap up the case, which they had viewed as languishing in bureaucratic purgatory.
As long as it remained open, important information about environmental and public health concerns from extremely high levels of lead at Table Mesa, an area about an hour north of Phoenix with dozens of dispersed recreational shooting sites, remained shielded from the public.
The Department of Interior's Office of the Inspector General, which oversaw the investigation, found that Bureau of Land Management officials had known for years about lead contamination at Table Mesa, which at one site registered more than 70 times the state's allowable level, but had done nothing to clean it up and failed to notify the public and BLM's own employees.
The closure comes less than a month after Phoenix New Times reported on the federal investigation and published documents from the case. The BLM has yet to clean up any of the contaminated areas.
"Everything [the BLM has] started working on has stalled or been left by the wayside," Kevin Bell, a staff attorney with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told New Times in an interview last month. "There's no solution forthcoming."
Bell, who represented the whistleblower and became involved in the case because of those delays, shared documents from the investigation with New Times, he said, because "we think the public has a right to know.”
Otherwise, the documents, and the information they contained, would gather dust at the Office of Special Counsel, he said, and the BLM would never be forced to act.
Bell told New Times on Monday he was pleased that the OSC had closed the case, saying, “It puts on the record that these allegations were substantiated.” But, he added, he was disappointed that the OSC had taken so long to finalize it.
He said he could not ignore the fact that, after sitting on it for months, the office acted so quickly to close the case after New Times published its piece in January.
Derrick Henry, a spokesperson for the BLM, told New Times, “As stewards of public lands, the BLM is committed to meeting our obligation to address any potential environmental issues related to lead and arsenic in soils at Table Mesa. We fully cooperated with the formal investigation and have been taking a methodical, scientific approach to evaluating and sampling the site to ensure we have a robust assessment of any potential hazards."
He added that the BLM's field office in Phoenix was now "focused on working with regulators and our Headquarters to determine appropriate site remediation and site management options and to identify funding requirements."
In closing the case, the OSC declared that the case led to changes in BLM rules, policies, and practices, and improved health and safety.
But New Times' story in January detailed concerns from BLM employees, including the whistleblower, that despite its promises to the OSC, the BLM had yet to develop policies to address high levels of lead at Table Mesa, and that its attempts to warn the public didn't actually do so.
For example, in a letter from May 2018, Brian Steed, the Bureau of Land Management's deputy director over policy and programs, told the OSC that signs would be placed at concentrated target shooting sites to alert the public to potential soil contamination.
Although those signs warn that "ammunition products contain lead and arsenic which may pose a health hazard if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin," they don't warn the public that excessive levels of arsenic and lead have been found at Table Mesa.
Zachary Kurz, a spokesperson for the OSC, said the office "was not given the opportunity to review or comment on the specific language used in the warning signs."
Henry, the BLM spokesperson, told New Times that the language on the signs "was developed in accordance with best practices."
The BLM also promised the OSC in May 2018 that it was "currently working on updated policy on management and remediation of concentration recreation target shooting sites nationwide." It said it would implement those policies "to reduce the risks associated with recreational target shooting on the public lands."
Nearly two years later, the BLM still lacks a national policy to manage target shooting.
In January, BLM Phoenix District office manager Leon Thomas told New Times that the agency was developing micro-sites for managed target shooting. The results from that project would eventually help inform policy, he said.
According to Henry, BLM headquarters — which right now, could mean either Washington, D.C., or Grand Junction, Colorado — "continues to work on an updated national policy on management and remediation." He pointed out that the agency had just received an Ecological Risk Assessment study in December and was working with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality on next steps.
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A spokesperson for the ADEQ did not respond to queries about the status of the department's work with the BLM.
Kurz described the BLM's corrective actions as being adequate. "As part of our process, the Special Counsel reviewed the agency’s action plan, and in this case found it to be reasonable," he told New Times via email.
The OSC does not have enforcement authority to ensure that the BLM follows through with its promised actions, Kurz said. That power lies with others in Washington, D.C.
"Our statutory process is to review the agency’s proposed corrective action and to inform the President and Congress, who can continue oversight," Kurz said. The OSC can only reopen a case, or open a new one, if a whistleblower provides new information "that actions are not being taken," he added.