A well-worn definition of insanity is repeating the same mistake and expecting a different outcome.
Seems like our Mass. Army National Guard never heard that one. They have lately resurrected a plan from 1998 to site a machine-gun practice range on the protected watershed at Joint Base Cape Cod, formerly Camp Edwards. But that plan was soundly rejected by then Gov. Paul Cellucci — a Republican — because it was incompatible with watershed protection for the largest of the Cape’s sole-source aquifers, the Sandwich lens, which provides the drinking water for the entire Upper Cape.
Those concerns were unfortunately confirmed over 20 years ago, when chemical and fuel spills at the base contaminated over 66 billion — with a “b” — gallons of water and required huge cleanup efforts that continue to this day. As a result of that vast environmental insult, legislation set aside three-quarters of the base, 15,000 acres, for protection as the Upper Cape Water Supply Reserve. This was to be a natural resource area for water supply and wildlife habitat protection; military uses were strictly limited to those compatible with these two key goals.
Given the existing contamination of the southern portions of the base, where most military activity including the airfield is concentrated, the forest and grassland of the northern areas is an essential resource for new wells needed to serve an expanding population. And as the largest unbroken forested area on the Cape, it is habitat to 31 endangered species.
The National Guard proposal would designate more than a third of the protected area as “areas where projectiles fired on the range would land.” While the Guard presents a nice clean model of an earthen berm behind targets to catch ammunition, which could be recovered, they also speak of scatter, and the large impact area reflects that. Presumably, this area might be contaminated by copper or lead bullets that would have to be periodically removed. More land clearing.
The National Guard staged a virtual “public hearing” last month, with over 200 concerned people in attendance. While it had the apparent format of a hearing, it was not actually a listening session. The Guard made it clear from the beginning that its own assessment had found no significant concerns, and that it was planning to move forward. There has been no independent evaluation of potential effects.
In more than three hours of testimony, local residents described the loss of use of their home wells from prior base contamination, as well as the noise of existing weapons ranges, and it was clear that few Cape Codders found comfort in the officials’ blandishments. Their plan appeared to be a done deal.
But the story isn’t finished, and the deal is not done.
The base is owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the 15,000-acre reserve is under the watchful eye of its Environmental Management Commission, which is charged with “permanent protection of its drinking water supply and wildlife habitat.” It will hold hearings this summer; without approval, the project will not advance.
Substantial opposition to the machine-gun range is developing. The Mashpee Select Board voted unanimously to oppose it, and the county’s Assembly of Delegates will consider a similar resolution. The Association to Preserve Cape Cod has taken a leadership role, and the environmental group 350 Cape Cod has spoken out strongly and gathered over 500 signatures. The Boston Globe ran an opinion essay titled “Camp Edwards is the wrong place for a machine-gun range.”
The top-down bureaucratic proposal process has been a mockery. Select boards in the neighboring towns report feeling blindsided. Nor was Barnstable County government in the loop. And the event on May 20 was an insult to those in attendance, including a remarkable number of knowledgeable authorities. The “hearing” was devoid of any serious exchange. It was one-way message delivery, with no rebuttal.
I do not discount those who value defense or increased economic activity over environmental concerns. But those concerns are not hypothetical. When the water and the air are contaminated, our physical health suffers, and we sustain huge cleanup costs endlessly. When neighborhoods and a school are subjected to the sounds of warfare, our mental health is imperiled.
As a true community, we need to make our voices heard. “This land is your land,” as Woody sang. The word “commonwealth” means just what it says: that we all share in the natural wealth of our home. True leadership knows how to listen and learn.
Brian O’Malley, M.D., is Provincetown’s elected delegate to the Barnstable County Assembly. Write him at [email protected].