The U.S. Coast Guard hasn't necessarily scrapped its intention to hold live gunnery training around the Great Lakes, although it has withdrawn its original plan in the wake of intense public criticism.
That proposal -- to establish 34 machine gun training zones from Lake Superior to Lake Erie -- drew nearly 1,000, mostly negative, comments in e-mails, letters and testimony at public meetings in recent months, and was dropped last week. Charter captains, recreational boaters and environmentalists from the United States and Canada had expressed concerns about public safety and the impact of spent lead rounds on the environment.
Much of the criticism focused on the first trench, a fishing hot spot in Lake Erie where the Coast Guard wanted to establish a 133 square mile zone that, at 1.3 percent of the lake, would have been among its largest.
"We're looking at ways to work around the first trench and other issues," said Lieutenant Greg Fondran of the Ninth Coast Guard District in Cleveland. "Each zone is being reconsidered. Nothing has been ruled out. We're looking at all alternatives."
While one of the most viable may be to scale back on the size, number and locations of the sites originally proposed, Fondran said, the Coast Guard also is considering training with simulators, using environmentally friendly ammunition, or shipping personnel to coastal training areas, although that is the least likely.
"The problems you run into are time and cost," Fondran said. "You can't pull out individuals; you have to train a whole boat crew. Because of that, you have a readiness issue. You don't want to take people away from their area of responsibility and their ability to respond to search and rescues."
It also is best to train people in the environment where they intend to use their weapons, he said.
"If we went with a simulator, it would have to be one that recreates a moving target on the waves and swells of the water."
The Coast Guard has conducted two dozen training sessions on the Great Lakes this year with the new M-240 Bravo machine guns that were added to its arsenal after 9/11. But it was looking to establish permanent sites, even though they would be used just a few days a year and for a few hours on those days.
Still, critics questioned how effective the Coast Guard could be in ensuring public safety, given that not all boaters carry marine radios or read postings in newspapers. The Coast Guard admitted that, while it would monitor zones during drills with radar and human observers, it couldn't guarantee against boats wandering into training areas.
Critics also decried the prospect of thousands of pounds of lead from spent rounds settling on the bottom of the lakes each year, when the federal government has issued warnings about the toxic effects of lead.
"We're looking at alternatives to live ammunition, to some that are considered environmentally friendly," Fondran said. "We've heard of some kinds that involve tungsten and nylon."
When the Coast Guard comes up with a "plan B," Fondran said, it will engage stakeholders in the process more than it did this past fall.
"We learned we didn't have a good enough public dialogue when we extended the first rule-making. We need to do this better," he said. "We will create opportunities where we will get input from the public and all people with an interest in the Great Lakes, whether it's a guy with a 14-foot john boat or a guy who owns a shipping company.
"With regard to the first trench, we were unaware that this was such an important fishing hole. Once we got input, we realized the best place for station Erie to train isn't smack dab in the middle of a local fishing hole, which is also important to the local economy."
Charter captain Dan Kelly, who heads up the Port Erie Charter Captains Association, said smaller zones would be more acceptable, as long as they are far from prime fishing spots, especially the first trench.
"The Coast Guard needs to keep the zones to a size they can patrol," Kelly said. "Safety continues to be the No. 1 concern. I hope the guard will seek input from captains."
Though Fondran couldn't provide a deadline for developing a new plan, he said time is of the essence, since it involves national security.
"We want to move forward as soon as possible so people don't lose their qualifications and because others have yet to be trained to get to the capability they need to be at," he said.