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Arizona BLM Has Known About Lead Problems at Table Mesa for a Decade, OIG Says

Table Mesa is a popular site for recreational target shooters in Arizona.EXPAND
Table Mesa is a popular site for recreational target shooters in Arizona.
Elizabeth Whitman

Leaders at the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona knew for years that recreational shooting sites north of Phoenix contained high levels of lead, but they failed to warn the public and their own employees, according to a federal investigation.

Nor has the agency cleaned up the contamination, despite the potential threats to humans, including children, and to the environment, says a report from that investigation, which was conducted by the Inspector General’s Office at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The affected area, Table Mesa, is a 11,557-acre swath of land about 10 miles north of Anthem and a few miles west of Interstate 17. Roughly 32 of those acres are occupied by dozens of informal, dispersed sites for target shooting, a popular pastime on public lands in the West.

The federal investigation, completed in April 2018, was prompted by a whistleblower disclosure filed with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel in August 2017 by Eric Zielske, an employee at the BLM’s state office in Arizona. DOI's Office of Inspector General opened its investigation the following February.

But since then, despite promises by the BLM, which manages 12.2 million acres of public land in Arizona, little has changed at Table Mesa, interviews and records indicate.

Phoenix New Times obtained the Inspector General Office’s report, which included transcripts of federal agents’ interviews with BLM leaders and employees, emails, and studies, and other records from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Maryland that provides services to public employees, including whistleblowers.

For this story, New Times also relied on BLM emails released under a Freedom of Information Act request to the Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit that works to protect wildlife and watersheds. Its New Mexico and Arizona director, Cyndi Tuell, filed that public records request last June to seek information about the impacts of target shooting on the Sonoran desert tortoise.

‘Lead Does Not Go Away’

Zielske is an environmental engineer who still oversees the BLM’s hazardous materials and resource restoration program. In his disclosure in August 2017, he alleged that agency management had abused its authority, violated environmental regulations, and endangered public health by failing to address the high levels of lead contamination and by failing to warn the people who spend time on BLM-managed lands.

“Lead does not go away,” Zielske told New Times. “That was our concern. People need to be warned about this stuff.”

Federal investigators substantiated many of his claims.

They determined that some managers at the BLM in Arizona had known about the high levels of lead since 2010. Others learned of them in 2015. Although the BLM stopped sanctioning volunteer cleanups and ordered a follow-up study on the risks to human health from the lead, they didn’t clean up the contamination at the sites.

For years, BLM leaders never warned their own employees, the hundreds of volunteers who participate in trigger-trash cleanups at Table Mesa, or the members of the public who, unaware of the stratospheric levels of lead in the soil in some areas, go to Table Mesa to shoot, ride ATVs, hike, mountain bike, and camp, investigators confirmed.

Employees also told investigators that they faced threats of retaliation for speaking up about the issue, and that they were reprimanded for sending those concerns in writing via email.

Several former and current employees approached by New Times for this piece declined to comment. Some cited fear of retaliation. Others said that they had moved on and did not want to revisit the issue, or that the events had faded from memory.

Investigators did not declare whether the agency had broken state or federal laws by leaving such high levels of lead in the soil or by relying on hundreds of untrained volunteers for cleanups, which the BLM's own videos show children joining.

One key question is whether years’ worth of lead and arsenic from target shooting — an activity not unique to Arizona, nor to BLM-managed lands — legally constitutes hazardous waste.

Case law indicates that that an accumulation of contaminated materials that no longer serve their intended purpose does qualify as solid waste, and as such would be subject to regulation under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, according to a draft cleanup plan that Zielske prepared for BLM management in 2019.

In at least one other state, the BLM has been warned it was violating the law by leaving spent ammunition at informal target shooting sites.

In 2016, in response to a complaint about an unofficial shooting area on BLM lands in Oregon, the Department of Environmental Quality there warned the BLM that lead shot was not considered a hazardous waste when a shot is fired, but "spent lead shot (or bullets), left in the environment, is subject to the broader definition of solid waste written by Congress and used in sections ... of the RCRA statute."  

The BLM was in violation of the federal law, the department said, and had to clean up the contamination, including by scraping 10 inches of soil from areas used for target shooting, or else would face penalties.

In Arizona, the Department of Environmental Quality has the authority to enforce RCRA.

In response to questions sent by New Times on January 16 about lead at Table Mesa, a spokesperson for ADEQ said the agency is looking into the issue but was not able to respond to questions by deadline.

Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations for hazardous waste operations and emergency response — or, HAZWOPER — require "general site workers," who do hazardous substance removal "or other activities which expose or potentially expose workers to hazardous substances and health hazards" to have at least 40 hours of off-site instruction and at least three days of actual field experience under a trained, experienced supervisor.

The HAZWOPER standards cover volunteers at cleanups at sites recognized by the government as "uncontrolled hazardous waste sites," according to OSHA.

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act, often abbreviated to FLPMA, explicitly bars the Secretary of Interior from "permit[ting] the use of volunteers in hazardous duty."

Zielske told New Times he hoped the BLM would do a better job of managing target shooting and addressing the resulting contamination — not close down target shooting sites.

“My intention is never to stop anybody from exercising their right under FLMPA to use public land for recreational shooting,” he said. “It just has to be managed better.”

Stratospheric Levels of Lead

Arizona regulations limit the concentration of lead in nonresidential areas like Table Mesa to 800 parts per million, or ppm.

At Table Mesa, lead contamination at the majority of sites sampled blew past that number. Some samples showed lead content at orders of magnitude above the amount allowed by the state.

As New Times reported in November, soil samples taken in 2015 for a study known as a "preliminary assessment/site inspection" exceeded the state’s legal threshold for lead from 24 of 31 informal shooting sites.

The Inspector General’s report, which included records specifying the actual levels of lead, shed new light on the full extent of the contamination. The site with the highest levels of lead had 57,400 ppm — more than 70 times the legal limit. Another had 44,800 ppm; a third, 39,800 ppm.

Top managers at the BLM, including State Director Ray Suazo and then-Associate State Director Deb Rawhouser, had to have known about the extreme lead levels by December 2015, at the very latest, records show.

That month, they were briefed on results of that preliminary assessment by Phoenix District Office Manager Leon Thomas and an engineer, Matt Plis, the hazardous materials coordinator for the BLM’s Lower Sonoran Field Office.

But according to BLM employees interviewed by agents with the Inspector General’s Office, Suazo and Rawhouser might have been aware of the problem years earlier.

In 2010, Plis and the chief of engineering services, Bill Harris, who retired in 2015, decided to test the soil in Table Mesa. They were prompted by people working on an environmental assessment there who had raised questions, Plis told investigators.

Harris and Plis took a handheld version of a tool called an XRF-analyzer, which uses X-rays to detect concentrations of different elements, brought it to a site at Table Mesa, and pointed it at the ground.

“I’ll never forget this ‘cause one of them came back at, like, 43,000 parts per million lead,” Harris told an investigator. He recalled seeing people lying in the dirt to shoot, and thinking, “Well, you’re taking that contaminant home with you.”

Plis emailed his supervisors with their preliminary findings, while Harris tried to alert his superiors, they told investigators in separate interviews. But Harris’s requests stopped at Rawhouser; Plis told investigators that Rawhouser wouldn’t let Harris schedule an appointment to brief the state director, Suazo.

Rawhouser, who retired in December 2017, told New Times she did not recall the specifics of the Table Mesa issue. Asked whether she had ever barred Harris from briefing Suazo, she said, “I would think that would be really funny and really unusual” if she had done so, because “if employees needed to brief, they were allowed to brief, but it had to be through protocol.”

Stymied, Harris got creative.

In 2012 or 2013, he told investigators, he approached the head of BLM Arizona in the men’s room and warned him that the agency was potentially violating worker safety laws by using volunteers to clean up contaminated sites. He also told Suazo that the high levels of lead were also worrisome on “the ecological side,” which he said could be more serious than human health issues.

Suazo appeared to agree, Harris told the investigator, “but he never put out a directive that stopped it.”

Suazo told investigators he didn’t recall being approached in the bathroom by Harris.

BLM Arizona spokesperson Rem Hawes told New Times that Suazo was not available for an interview for this story.

Hawes, formerly the field manager who supervised Table Mesa, declined New Times’ request for an interview, too. “I'm so far removed from the work of the field office that I don't have any information to share regarding the Table Mesa area,” he wrote in an email.

‘This Is Not a Crisis’

In 2014, funding finally came through for the BLM to commission the preliminary assessment/site inspection — the study that led to the December 2015 briefing. But when those results confirmed the high lead levels that Plis and Harris had discovered in the field five years earlier, BLM leaders didn’t want to hear about it.

“I get the impression that you think this is a crisis situation, and this is not a crisis situation,” Plis recalled Rawhouser saying during the December 2015 meeting, according to a transcript of his interview with investigators.

When Thomas, the Phoenix district manager, suggested putting up warning signs, Plis remembered, Rawhouser told him not to because that would be like designating specific shooting sites, which the BLM did not do.

Rawhouser repeatedly told New Times that she did not recall the specifics of that time. “That was a long, long time ago,” she said. “I kinda just put a lot of that stuff out of my memory.”

In an interview with New Times, Thomas declined to comment on the investigation by the Inspector General's Office.

Today, Table Mesa remains open to the public. The BLM no longer sanctions volunteer cleanups, but those events still take place without the agency’s stamp of approval. People still shoot, ride, hike, and bike at Table Mesa.

Still others come to collect brass casings and lead to sell as scrap. Increasingly, families picnic at Table Mesa, and kids play in the dirt on the ranges, according to an email from Jeff Gursh, who for years served as the ranger at Table Mesa for the BLM through a partnership with the Arizona Off Highway Vehicle Coalition.

That email was sent to Matt Plis in September 2016. Plis shared the message with Zielske and his own superiors, including Thomas.

“Most pickers use the monies from the scrap brass and lead or steel as a way to support themselves,” Gursh wrote in that email. “So daily visits are a job to them.”

He added, “more and more of the target shooters on weekends are Hispanic families.” Kids and grandparents alike “make a day out of target shooting and have a nice cookout, kids and dogs all on the ground,” he wrote.

Another problem, Gursh continued, was that target shooters were bringing fruit and other produce to shoot at with shotguns.

“The lead shot is eaten with the produce by small animals that die or are shot while eating the produce on site,” he wrote in his report. “And I now have a large number of Vultures dying … cant prove but think that Vultures are dying from the lead shot from the dead small critters.”

After that email exchange with Gursh, Plis was told not to discuss the issue over email. The message, from Thomas, was relayed to Plis by his own boss, Ed Kender, who recalled to an investigator that Thomas was “a little upset” by the fact that those concerns were put in writing. Kender said Thomas asked him to remind Plis that he preferred to receive the information through briefings.

Thomas did not respond to a follow-up question from New Times about whether he had ever asked or told someone not to put concerns in writing.

Gursh, who served for two decades as the ranger at Table Mesa, told New Times he was never contacted by investigators from the Inspector General’s Office.

'A Huge Red Flag'

Two years after that initial assessment, a subsequent risk assessment commissioned by the BLM determined that four of those sites posed a high level of risk to BLM workers and park rangers, adult target shooters, and people who collect spent ammunition to sell. Two sites posed a medium level of risk, the report said.

Citing a lack of data, that study, which was finished in 2017, did not assess the risk to children and families who picnic at Table Mesa. Instead, it urged further study, saying, “This potential exposure scenario could be significant.”

Lead pellets and bullets are about 90 percent lead and 2 percent arsenic. The remainder is composed of antimony, copper, and zinc.

A bullet zipping out of a high-velocity rifle through a paper target and into a dirt backstop will stay lodged in the soil, intact. But bullets that hit steel targets, which have become increasingly popular and affordable for recreational shooters, will shatter into lead fragments and dust that settle into the dirt, Gursh, the ranger at Table Mesa, explained to New Times.

Screenshot of 2015 BLM video of a Table Mesa cleanup project.
Screenshot of 2015 BLM video of a Table Mesa cleanup project.
BLM/YouTube

The simple act of firing also contributes to lead contamination.

“From every muzzle flash, you’ve got gunfire residue that settles on the soil,” Zielske, the whistleblower, said.

People’s bodies can absorb the metal by inhaling airborne particles. More worrying is that it can be ingested, if a person touches lead-laced dirt and puts a hand to their mouth, as we do when we eat. For children with developing bodies and brains, lead, a neurotoxin, is profoundly dangerous.

That 2017 risk assessment was done in an unusual fashion, interviews and emails show. Typically, it would include two components: an evaluation of the risks to human health, and another analysis looking at the threats to the environment, including wildlife.

In his interview with federal investigators, Plis said that the ecological risks from the contamination would “almost certainly be unacceptable.” To assess only the risk to humans, and not to the environment, was “like a huge red flag,” he told investigators. “You always do both.”

But Zielske, who wrote the proposal for the risk assessment, was told not to include the ecological component.  Plis told investigators that the order came from Deb Rawhouser. Emails between him and other BLM employees at the time didn’t name Rawhouser specifically but pointed to the state BLM office as making the decision.

“Tough issues on the eco risk side of things,” Doug Cox, then an environmental risk assessment specialist at the BLM’s National Operations Center in Denver, who helped develop the proposal for the 2017 study, wrote in a September 2016 email to Plis. “Our proposed evaluation of eco receptors was nixed by Eric’s [Zielske’s] management at the proposal stage.”

In another email in the same thread, he said that managers at the state level, above Zielske, made the decision.

“I hate to ignore something like this,” Cox wrote Plis.

Asked about that decision, Rawhouser told New Times, “I don’t remember that.”

Cox, who spent five years at the BLM before leaving for the private sector in 2018, told New Times that typically, as a subject matter expert, he would have some discretion over whether or not to conduct an ecological risk assessment on a site. In this case, he said, the decision should have been left to him and Zielske.

But with the Table Mesa study, that didn't happen.

There was no specific technical reason from BLM managers, just a vague, "We're not going to do it," Cox recalled. "I was somewhat concerned that this decision had been made without having adequate information."

He anticipated that, if an ecological risk assessment were done, the shooting sites at Table Mesa, or any recreational shooting area, were bound to fail those analyses. "The very nature of the activity puts toxic chemicals into the soil," Cox said.

'As Expeditiously as Financial Resources Allow'

After the OIG finished its investigation in April 2018, the BLM, in response, said it would take steps to fix address the contamination.

In a letter to the Office of Special Counsel dated May 29, 2018, the agency said that efforts were under way “to enter into contracts with appropriate experts to conduct remediation and cleanup at the six sites where shooting may pose a risk to human health.”

It also promised to remediate, or clean up, locations with soils “with concentrations of hazardous materials … as expeditiously as financial resources allow.” The agency also said that its main office, in Washington, D.C., was updating policy on managing and remediating recreational target shooting sites across the country.

It said it would implement those policies “to reduce the risks associated with recreational target shooting on the public lands.”

In the year and a half since, the BLM finally posted caution signs at some target-shooting areas at Table Mesa. They warn that ammunition products “contain lead and arsenic which may pose a health hazard” and to "avoid contact with surface materials." But they don’t tell people that tests show the land they are about to step onto has extremely high levels of those contaminants.

The ecological risk assessment — the study that BLM management decided to skip in 2017 — was finished a month ago, in December 2019, Thomas told New Times. He declined to provide a copy of the report, saying it needed to be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The BLM has yet to enter into those contracts to clean up Table Mesa. It is still working with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to determine how much lead would have to be removed, according to Thomas.

“We hope to have a statement of work and a contract out for bid in the next 30 to 45 days,” Thomas said. That work would be at both Table Mesa and Miller Road, a site in Buckeye that was closed to recreational shooting after a woman was killed by a stray bullet there in January 2018. “It shouldn’t be a reach for us to clean up one of those smaller sites,” he said.

As for the policy from Washington, there is none. The lack of directive dates back to a memo issued in 2011 by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, directing the BLM head at the time, Bob Abbey, to "take no further action to develop or implement" a draft policy on recreational shooting.

“We’re moving in the direction of formulating this policy,” Thomas said. He added that the Phoenix district is slated to be the pilot location for creating microsites for recreational shooting on lands managed by the BLM, an experiment that will help inform that future policy.

Zielske’s whistleblowing case remains open, said Kevin Bell, a staff attorney with PEER. He said he shared the documents with media because the public's right to know about lead contamination at Table Mesa outweighed the BLM's need to protect itself.

“There is no solution forthcoming,” he said. “Everything they’ve started working on has stalled or been left by the wayside.”

Zac Kurz, a spokesperson for the Office of Special Counsel, said the office could not comment on or confirm whether it has specific open investigations.

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