Lead contamination issues at the Durango Gun Club have sparked what will likely be a multimillion dollar cleanup.
“We believe that levels of lead in the soil may exceed applicable standards,” said Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County.
In 1942, La Plata County acquired a 295-acre parcel that used to be a mine, which was then turned into a landfill used by the city of Durango for years.
In 1979, a part of the property was leased to the Durango Gun Club for an outdoor shooting range, located on La Posta Road (County Road 213), just south of the high bridge on U.S. Highway 160/550.
Now, the range is used for training by a number of law enforcement agencies, such as the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, Durango Police Department, Fort Lewis College Police Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Over the years at the shooting range, there has been a significant buildup of lead, which bullets are usually made of. Lead is often a byproduct in the primer in gunpowder, too.
A couple years ago, the Durango Gun Club started collecting fees from its estimated 1,000 members in anticipation of the need for a future cleanup to address lead contamination, said John Malarsie, club president.
Malarsie said lead contamination is a known issue among the shooting community, with warnings on ammunition boxes and other equipment. The gun club even put up flyers around the range to take extra precautions.
“The shooting community is aware of it,” he said. “Everything you see and use has a warning on it.”
In its proposed 2021 budget, La Plata County has set aside $2.5 million to start a remediation project at the site. The intent, county officials say, is to bring in other funding from groups that use the range.
“We’ve been in discussions with the Durango Gun Club for a few years on this issue,” said La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith. “This budget request ... is meant to help us reduce that risk because it’s been out there for a very long time.”
While the cost or scope of the project isn’t fully settled, the plan would be to physically remove soils containing lead and other contaminates, Graham said.
“And if the site continues as a gun range, everyone who uses it will need to develop and implement a best-practices plan,” she said.
Lead contamination issues at gun ranges are an issue across the country.
Gabriel Filippelli, a professor at Indiana University, undertook a study in 2017 with fellow colleagues that looked at more than 30 scientific reviews on the health impacts from lead exposure to people at outdoor gun ranges.
“It’s deadly serious,” he said.
When contaminated soils dry out, lead can be picked up when the wind blows and then breathed in by people. And even more dangerous is when people shoot and breathe in primer that contains lead.
Lead poisoning can damage a person’s memory and cause issues with concentration, Filippelli said. It can also lead to depression and aggressive behavior, he said.
As a result, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has set limits for airborne exposure to lead, and recommends anyone who spends a lot of time at gun ranges to practice good hygiene, wear gloves and eye protection, and to look out for symptoms.
Filippelli said shooters can also try to use nonlead alternatives.
“If you don’t follow proper gun range protocol ... then you expose yourself to lead,” he said.
And, lead contamination can have an environmental impact if soils run off into local waterways. Smith said there are monitors on the Animas River, which is adjacent to the gun range, to look for any potential spikes of lead.
Malarsie said the mitigation project at the gun club is still in its early planning stages, but could also include small reservoirs and catch basin to capture runoff.
At some bigger gun ranges, Malarsie said soils are processed to separate the lead to be reused in bullets, with the soil then put back on-site.
“We’d just like to participate with some manpower ... and some money to get in the program with them,” he said.
The mitigation project at the gun range is not set in stone, however. County commissioners are reviewing the proposed budget and are set to formally vote on the matter in November.