If you picked up a scoop of dirt near the intersection of I-275 and Gandy Boulevard in Pinellas Park, you'd most likely hold more lead than soil. That's because, according to a contamination report by a Tampa engineering firm, there's a lot of lead in the area; somewhere between 10,000 and 13,000 tons of it. The lead has also traveled to the neighboring Sawgrass Lake from a connecting retention pond, according to the report. Only a few feet away from the murky, lead-polluted waterline of this retention pond sits a wire fence that separates the contaminated area, owned by Southwest Florida Water Management District -- colloquially known as Swiftmud -- from the Skyway Trap and Skeet Club.
A mobile-home community borders the east end of the gun club's fence line. Allen Conner, president of Roberts Mobile Home Resort, has been on a mission to stop the gun range from further polluting the land since the contamination came to his attention in 1999. Conner believes children and families are in danger of severe lead poisoning. "Every day kids are sneaking through Swiftmud's fence to fish in that poisonous area, and I have the photographs to prove it," says Conner.
In 2000, Swiftmud filed a lawsuit against Skyway to clean up the lead. But the gun range fought back and enlisted a powerful ally: the National Rifle Association. When mediation failed to settle the suit, the NRA pushed to change state law and make it illegal for government agencies to sue gun ranges for causing pollution; an original draft of the proposed bill would have made such a suit a third-degree felony. Florida gun ranges would take little responsibility for the damage they cause to the environment, and essentially enjoy immunity from state pollution laws. As an added bonus, Swiftmud's lawsuit against Skyway would have been dismissed if the two sides failed to reach a settlement before the bill was passed.
The NRA and Skyway feel that a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against a gun range set a dangerous precedent for the 400 other gun ranges in the state. Senate Bill 1156 and House Bill 149 concluded that gun ranges are a "necessary component" for Florida residents to practice their shooting skills.
The bill recently passed in both the House and the Senate by a landslide. However, in a surprising intervention, Gov. Jeb Bush said he would veto a bill that provided blanket immunity for gun ranges against the pollution laws. He also urged this particular lawsuit to be settled out of court. After these polite "suggestions," the two sides finally reached an agreement in April. Swiftmud will clean up the pollution caused by the gun club, at a cost of more than $10 million to taxpayers. The gun club will clean up the pollution on their own land (with costs estimated at $2 million) and put up a 50-foot fence to keep lead pellets on their property. As for the potential punishment for violators of this new bill, the third-degree felony charges were reduced to a misdemeanor in the final draft.
Either way, taxpayers are footing the bill, and the gun club is receiving a slap on the wrist. The entire episode is a lesson in Tallahassee power politics.
The trouble began in 1999, when Conner started receiving complaints that people's mobile homes were being hit by gunshot debris. Conner says that when he confronted Skyway's management, he was not only ignored, but threatened by people pointing guns at him. He called the police.
The "drop zone" for the lead pellets was not on gun range property, but owned by Swiftmud. Since both Conner's land and Swiftmud's land are adjacent to the gun club's outdoor range, Conner notified the Swiftmud authorities to warn them of likely pollution. Swiftmud launched an investigation that included a $250,000 Contamination Assessment Report. After sampling 10 different locations at Sawgrass Lake, the scientists confirmed the presence of "constituents of concern" in fish tissue, fish liver samples, surface water and sediment on the site. These contaminants included lead, arsenic and antimony, according to the report.
Conner says he regularly sees kids fishing in the retention pond connected to Sawgrass Lake, and worries that they might be eating what they catch. But the NRA wasn't buying his argument.
"There is no proof that this lead is harming anybody," says Tallahassee NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer. "These people have been attacking this gun club for 30 years -- they are trying to run them off."
She's referring to the fact that in 1976, Swiftmud took the area known as the "drop zone" from the gun club. She says the gun club did not want to relinquish the land, but a judge granted an easement, allowing gun club members to continue shooting over the drop zone without breaking any laws. However, the easement ruling took place nearly 10 years before the federal government began exploring the health dangers of lead, and outlawed the use of it.
"If a kid gets sick from breaking the law and trespassing onto this dirty land, Swiftmud should be held legally liable, not the gun club," adds Hammer.
Hammer calls Swiftmud's conduct "despicable," and refuses to believe the results of any test done on their behalf. "Any studies conducted by Swiftmud are suspect," she says, asserting her belief that the entire ordeal was a means for Swiftmud to shut down the gun club.
But Conner's attorney thinks there are other issues at stake. "The NRA claims that the state's power to compel cleanup of environmental contamination by gun clubs is a 'back door' attack on the right to bear arms," says J. Wayne Crosby, Conner's attorney. "The premises for the legislation are absolutely false and the hypocrisy is disgusting. No other Florida citizen has this kind of legislated immunity for their environmentally destructive actions. It is yet one more attempt by Republicans to encroach on the independence of the judiciary, continuing the attack on the separation of powers under the Florida Constitution."
Ironically, an environmental educational center named Sawgrass Lake Park is positioned just a few hundred yards away from the gun club. The backs of the Swiftmud warning signs are clearly visible from one of the park's lake docks, and the environmental site is visited by thousands of kids every year. Sawgrass Lake Park employees did not wish to comment on the possible dangers posed to the children who were sneaking to the contaminated canal to fish, but did state that they monitored the land frequently and did their best to make sure the fences were maintained.
David Parsons, a park-safety specialist for Pinellas County, says contamination should not be an issue. "That lead is heavy. Even though that canal and our lake meet, it's not likely that the lead will travel to other parts of the lake because there is no current through that area." That observation runs counter to Swiftmud's study, which concluded that Sawgrass Lake was already polluted.
NRA lobbyist Hammer believes Swiftmud is to blame for failing to keep kids out of their property, and that state agencies were "drunk with power." The bill was not filed as a result of this lawsuit, she says, but to protect other Florida gun ranges from harassment by state agencies. "I was shocked when Swiftmud lawyers stated that this lawsuit is the poster child for the bill ... this bill was not filed because of this lawsuit. These lawyers portrayed the situation that way to make themselves appear as victims."
Not so, says Swiftmud attorney Bill Bilenky. "If we were trying to shut down the gun club, we have certainly dragged our feet in the process. It's true that we opposed having the gun club shoot on our property in 1976, but we have made no further opposing motions for 28 years." As to the cause-and-effect of the lawsuit and the bill, Bilenky says the relationship couldn't be clearer. "This bill has a section in it that specifically refers to our lawsuit, so if it was not created as a result of this litigation, then I am amazed."
Bilenky adds that Swiftmud offered to pay for cleaning up the mess if Skyway would give them the polluted land. "But Skyway would agree to move only if the taxpayers also bought a specific property for its new home, paid its moving and legal bills and reimbursed lost income," reports the St. Petersburg Times.
Bilenky says that was asking too much. "We entered this lawsuit, not as a regulatory agency, but as an institution wanting to make a positive environmental change. We just happen to be an organization that's positioned next to a gun club. The lead is obviously a hazard to anyone going near it."
Meanwhile, the man who started it all, Allen Conner, remains fearful about the fate of his town. There's a large, 75-year-old drinking-water line that runs through the contaminated land and to a nearby pumping station, and Conner is afraid the water it carries could contain lead. "I've been stonewalled by every city official I've contacted for help -- they have all turned their backs on me out of favoritism for the club. People want to say that I'm an alarmist, but I'm not. When you're a parent, you get the car seat, you slow down when you're driving, you watch for things. These kids are in danger, and they can't speak for themselves."