It was June 2014 when a group of cancer survivors rented the Roseburg armory for a luncheon. They would bring their friends, their family, their children, and they would eat store-bought sandwiches in the drill hall.
They did not know that a nearby door would take them straight into the indoor firing range, where there were exorbitant levels of brain-damaging lead dust.
The Oregon Military Department ordered all armories to close their indoor ranges in April 2014, but inspections show that dust trailed beyond their thresholds. The dust got into the vents and circulated through other armory rooms, where renters could potentially breathe in or ingest the poisonous chemical.
A year after the Douglas County Cancer Services luncheon, the National Guard Bureau inspected the Roseburg armory on Hooker Road and concluded that 64 percent of the armory’s occupied spaces had dangerous levels of lead. Federal guidelines say 40 micrograms per square foot is permissible on indoor surfaces. Roseburg had concentrations as high as 75,455 micrograms per square foot.
All but two occupied rooms had toxic lead levels. Its entire ventilation structure — heating and cooling systems, ducts and grills — exceeded federal limits.
The 2015 inspection concluded that the armory needed a rehabilitation. It recommended replacing its ventilation system, deep-cleaning all surface areas and ceilings, and notifying renters of their exposure to lead.
The Douglas County Cancer Services never got a notification. Board member Jackie Barnett, who organized the luncheon, did not know about the exposure until The News-Review contacted her this month.
“I’m concerned,” she said. “I don’t know why we weren’t notified, and I don’t know who was there, so we have no way of notifying people.”
The Roseburg armory is not the only one with toxic lead levels: The Oregonian/OregonLive investigated armories across the country and released its findings in a series earlier this month. It says 424 armories had high levels in the last four years, while 700 more were not tested.
Lead exposure can cause severe mental and physical impairment. Children are most vulnerable because their brains are still developing. Even low levels of lead in blood can damage a child’s development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. There is no safe blood lead level in children.
The Flint, Michigan, water crisis brought lead poisoning into the national limelight two years ago, after the city failed to treat water so it would not drag the toxic material out of old pipes and into drinking glasses. Portland had its own lead scare earlier this year, prompting its public schools to wrap up their drinking fountains.
But this is different. The lead in armories is not coming from old pipes or flaky paint. It’s shooting from the barrel of a gun. Each time a lead bullet exits the chamber, it releases a nearly invisible spray of powder. That dust accumulates over time, and gets tracked into other rooms by soldiers’ boots, or it gets picked up and spread around by vents.
Lead levels in commercial shooting ranges are monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Roseburg Gun Club, for example, is required to have a hazmat-certified contractor clean its indoor range every week.
Armories are monitored by the National Guard and cleaned by its own soldiers. The Guard requires lead testing every year. The Roseburg armory has only been tested three times: once each in 2006, 2015 and 2016.
The Oregon Military Department failed to comply with the National Guard’s annual inspection requirements because it did not have enough money, a spokesman said.
The 2006 and 2015 inspections showed extremely high levels of lead, but the department did not take action until this year, when it spent $4 million renovating the building. Lead abatement was part of that renovation.
Now, lead levels are well below federal standards. The old shooting range has been converted into a pristine storage facility. The drill hall auditorium is spacious, gleaming with clean floors and fine woodwork, awaiting future luncheons.
The Roseburg armory might never have an indoor firing range again, but it is set to get software that will allow soldiers to qualify on their weapons by shooting air instead of bullets. The new system will connect air compressors to guns, which soldiers can aim at a screen depicting combat scenes. The air shots mimic the recoil they would otherwise feel with a real gun.
WHAT WENT WRONG
A series of miscommunication, poor record keeping and lack of funds has kept the Oregon Military Department from following protocol.
First, it failed to conduct annual inspections, not just in the Roseburg armory, but across the state.
Then it failed to send letters to all renters who were exposed to lead. Barnett was just one of eight Roseburg renters it attempted to notify. It doesn’t have records of any more than eight renters.
Then there was the time it accidentally let a classroom of Melrose Elementary School children spend the night at a contaminated Coos Bay armory. It was supposed to be closed because of toxic lead levels, but a staffer there let the children in anyway. A department spokesman attributes the incident to miscommunication.
The teacher organizing the coastal field trip, Darin Lomica, did not know about their exposure until he was contacted by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Inspections show extremely high levels of lead in that armory in 2006 and 2010. Even so, dozens of Roseburg children slept on its floors every spring until this year. The school has been doing this since the 1970s, Lomica said, ever since he was a child and a student at Melrose.
Nowadays it’s just a one-night sleepover, but in previous years, they stayed two nights or more. They slept at a nearby high school this year.
“For the first time ever, we hadn’t stayed in the armory,” Lomica said.
The Oregonian/OregonLive recommended the National Guard Bureau invest more money into lead abatement. It looks like that will happen, after all: the agency sent a memo this week letting armories know that it will cover the costs of cleaning lead in indoor firing ranges. It ordered all armories close their indoor firing ranges, and to discontinue community events in armories that have lead issues.
Oregon department spokesman Chris Ingersoll would not say if the memo was inspired by recent investigations.