Supporters of a popular marksmanship program say Eastern Washington University jumped the gun by closing the school’s indoor rifle range because of lead poisoning fears.
EWU safety officials say the critics should hold their fire until next week, when they’ll have a chance to explain the problem and the possible solutions.
“There’s a very high potential for exposure” to lead, said Barbara Skyles, the university’s environmental health and safety officer. “We have to protect people.”
Recent tests found that lead levels in the air at the Launi Meili Range were close to federal limits for offices or factories.
The Military Science Department agreed with a request from Skyles’ office to close the range this week so further tests can be conducted and possible solutions explored.
That angered members of the Cheney American Legion Junior Rifle Club, who showed up this week for their regular practice, only to find the range closed.
“There is not any immediate danger,” said Steve Goeden, whose daughter is a club member.
He called the decision an example of government officials finding problems where none exists. There are no examples of lead poisoning from the range, which has been used for years, he said.
Skyles said the testing was based only on suspicions but was prompted by reports of lead poisoning at other ranges around the country. Shooting rounds of ammunition with lead bullets can cause small particles of lead to be released into the air.
Lead poisoning has severe consequences, including nerve damage, memory loss and reproductive problems, she said.
“I think they’re overreacting,” said Mike Krei, the regional field representative for the National Rifle Association.
Krei said he hasn’t seen the university’s data, but noted that occupational safety standards are based on people being exposed to a certain level of poison for an eight-hour work day. Most people are in the range for one to two hours, and no one is in there for eight hours, he said.
Skyles said the school is just beginning to look at different solutions. School officials could suggest cutting the amount of time it is used, the number of people who can be inside or the number of rounds that can be fired.
“The ultimate solution could be to redo the ventilation system. That could be costly,” she said. University officials will explain the problem to students next week, and to members of the rifle club Tuesday evening.
Krei said the university might get financial help if the range needs a new ventilation system. Part of the money paid for concealed weapons permits is set aside for developing and improving rifle ranges, and the NRA also has a fund that could help.