December 11. 2016 7:08PM

Report: No high lead levels in NH National Guard armories

Union Leader Correspondent

National Guard officials in Franklin and elsewhere across the state closed indoor shooting ranges in order to combat lead contamination more than a decade ago. (Melissa Proulx/Union Leader Correspondent)

FRANKLIN — While hundreds of National Guard armories across the nation are dealing with high levels of lead contamination, New Hampshire’s are not.

All indoor shooting ranges in this state were closed after a memo in September 1991 noted concerns about ventilation at facilities.

When fired, bullets containing lead emit some of the element into the air. This dust settles and unless removed poses a health risk to those using the facility.

“All ranges failed a ventilation inspection conducted this week by a team from (the) National Guard Bureau and Army Environmental Hygiene Agency,” wrote Col. F.E. Merrill, the command administrative officer for the N.H. National Guard, at the time.

The ranges were closed and sealed off until a team could go in and properly clean the spaces. Those rooms were then converted, with many becoming storage areas.

“We don’t believe that any of our guardsmen, or their family or the general public were in harm’s way,” said Lt. Col. Greg Heilshorn, public affairs officer for the N.H. National Guard.

It cost about $500,000 to clean the lead out of all the armories — a task that was completed by 2002, Heilshorn said. At the time, there were more than a dozen armories in the state, including in Berlin, Concord, Hillsborough, Franklin, Keene, Lebanon, Nashua and Manchester.

Armories in four towns — Claremont, Dover, Lancaster and Woodsville — were closed, the buildings emptied and the properties turned over to the towns. Any lead-abatement issues were addressed before the transfers, said Heilshorn.

“They were all tested and cleaned before they were turned back over,” he said.

News report triggers concerns

The issue arose from an article published Dec. 1 in the Oregonian. Reporter Rob Davis investigated how lead contamination was handled in 50 states and four U.S. territories as part of a series on the issue.

States like Oregon, Montana and Wisconsin are now dealing with the aftermath of the lead contamination. According to Davis, armories in those states were not properly cleaned, and continued to be used by both guardsmen and members of the public, putting them at risk.

“Thankfully, the reporter put this issue back in the forefront,” Heilshorn said.

More needs to be done

After the New Hampshire armories were cleaned in 2002, a requirement was put in place at the National Guard to do annual checks to monitor lead levels. However, after a staggering increase in deployment of guardsmen in 2003, testing was put off as the focus shifted to supporting combat operations.

“Where we fell short was after we closed the ranges, cleaned them and converted them,” Heilshorn said. “It wasn’t a purposeful oversight.”

This past year was the first time since 2002 that New Hampshire armories were tested for lead. The majority of the armories in the state came back negative, or with lead levels below the threshold of what is considered dangerous for high-risk populations, like children.

Others, like the former indoor firing range at the armory in Manchester, did come back with somewhat higher levels. But that area was immediately sealed off until it could be professionally cleaned, Heilshorn said.

Once the cleaning is complete, another test will be administered to assure lead levels are where they need to be, he said.

More work is being done to address hazards in the decades-old buildings, many of which were built in or around the 1940s. This involves things like removing lead paint and asbestos from the old structures, all in line with guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“It’s been an ongoing process,” Heilshorn said.

From now on, tests will be done annually and on time, he said.