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Shooting range's water tests missing

Since it opened in 1999, the club has failed to submit annual reports to the county. It must produce them this week.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 16, 2003


LAND O'LAKES -- A Land O'Lakes shooting range with members including retired Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf has failed to submit yearly reports to Pasco County proving the business doesn't taint groundwater with lead.

In 1997 and 1998, the county let Tampa Bay Sporting Clays open on the condition owners install two monitoring wells, test the water for contamination twice yearly and turn over annual reports to the county.

The goal was to keep lead from shotgun shells from seeping into drinking water at the 244-acre range east of Ehren Cutoff. The Cypress Creek well field, supplier of about 25-million gallons of water a day to the Tampa Bay region, is a neighbor.

But when the St. Petersburg Times inquired about the gun range last week, it became clear Tampa Bay Sporting Clays had never submitted yearly water quality reports.

After the Times asked to see the reports, a Pasco code enforcement officer appeared at the shooting range Wednesday seeking them. He left empty handed. For four years running, gun range operators filed water test results without turning them over to the county, shooting range co-owner Sam Hilliard said.

Hilliard blamed the mistake on managers he had hired to run the place through late last year, Bob and Dave Bess. The Besses couldn't be reached for comment.

Hilliard replaced the Besses with new management, a company called Florida Shooting Sports, for reasons unrelated to the water issue. The range was renamed Pine Creek Sporting Clays in November.

"I think the operator was under the impression they had to keep the reports but not submit them," Hilliard said last week. "Everything's fine. We've never had a bad water sample."

Nevertheless, code enforcement officials have given the shooting range until Wednesday to produce the documentation proving the wells are clean. Hilliard promises to track down the reports.

"He's got to produce the reports within seven days," said Pat Phillips, a county code enforcement field supervisor.

The county required the gun range to pull water samples twice a year, at the end of May and September, from a depth of 50 feet to 70 feet. A state-certified testing company is supposed to do the analysis.

Pasco presumes water is safe if lead levels stay below 15-millionths of a gram per liter of water. Testing is also supposed to detect acidity, sulfates, nitrates and mercury.

The county required the club to test its water under pressure from neighbors. Protests began in 1997 with the announcement the gun range planned to open.

Critics feared not just contamination but noise from shotgun blasts. Customers shoot clay targets released in the woods to simulate the movements of doves, woodcock, pheasant, rabbits and other game.

Pellets and other residue from thousands of shooting sessions cover the forest floor on part of the rural spread about a mile south of State Road 52. Income from recycling lead isn't high enough to justify using machinery to pick the metal from the grass, shrubs and sand, Hilliard said.

There are strong arguments that the range does not pose an immediate danger to the environment. In fact, during the rezoning upheavals in 1997-98, state and county environmental officials pointed out that shotgun lead, properly contained, rarely reaches groundwater in dangerous concentrations.

Yet some cite the case of Skyway Trap and Skeet Club in Pinellas Park, shut down as an alleged health hazard in 2000. The club operated from 1947, decades in which shot landed in wetlands that drained into Sawgrass Lake. The state Department of Environmental Protection sued based on lead readings from the lake, groundwater and soil.

The DEP's attitude toward most of Florida's 400 or so ranges has been standoffish. Part of the reason is that pellets are not classified as hazardous waste because they're used for their intended purpose, said Mike Redig, a DEP environmental manager in Tallahassee.

Redig urged critics to keep things in perspective: lead paints and lead auto parts are potentially greater threats to the environment. Only if there's a "bona-fide complaint" that lead is washing off of shooting clubs does the DEP act, he said.

"There are no explicit rules for ranges," Redig said. "What there are is guidelines."

Environmental fears were never enough to spook Pasco officials. The county's Planning Commission unanimously approved Tampa Bay Sporting Clays in 1997. County commissioners followed with a favorable 4-1 vote. The lone dissenter was Pat Mulieri.

Then the case got mired in the corridors of the DEP as regulators weighed complaints from anti-gun-range activists.

Hilliard and his colleagues ratcheted up the pressure by dropping names of their clientele. Among them were Wayne LaPierre, executive director of the National Rifle Association, and then-Tampa Mayor Dick Greco.

Schwarzkopf, the Gulf War hero, went public with word he'd have to move the Schwarzkopf Cup, a charitable shooting tournament, to Miami. Unless, of course, regulators relented and let the range open.

The gun range contributed to the 1998 election loss of Republican county Commissioner Ed Collins. A former political ally, Christie Zimmer, claimed Collins bragged about voting for the gun range in exchange for political contributions.

An investigation by the Times found no such contributions, but the damage was done. Collins lost to Steve Simon. He said the gun range publicity, which occurred a week before the election, contributed to his defeat.

The club opened in May 1999. Its latest addition is the Remington Shooting School, which moved operations to Land O'Lakes. Drivers on Ehren Cutoff last week would have heard shotgun pops filtered through rows of planted pine at the club's gate.

Opponents of the range appear to have little fight left in them. Two of the most vocal critics from the late 1990s, Zimmer and Jerry Cirasuolo, no longer live within earshot of the business.

Said Cirasuolo: "Honestly, I think everyone got used to the idea of it being there. Once you're beaten, and it's there, what else can you do?"

-- James Thorner covers growth and development. He can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4613. His e-mail address is thorner@sptimes.com.

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