Gun range in south Sacramento park leaked toxic lead dust
A note taped to a side door of the James G. Mangan Rifle and Pistol Range in south Sacramento tells only a small part of the story.
The city-owned gun range in Mangan Park, on 34th Avenue near Freeport Boulevard, shut down more than 15 months ago, and a “temporarily closed” note on the door is the only notice neighboring residents and park users received.
The city closed the indoor range because it was polluted by hazardous levels of lead dust after decades of operation. But it has never cleaned that toxic dust from the interior of the shuttered range, nor from the roof, according to interviews and internal city documents. Environmental scientists specializing in lead contamination say the tainted particles that remained should have been cleaned long ago, and may pose an environmental hazard for park users and residents in the surrounding neighborhood.
The scientists interviewed by The Sacramento Bee said soil in the surrounding park and neighborhood should have been tested at the time the facility closed, to see if the toxic particles had spread through wind and rain. The city failed to do any soil testing until April 1, after The Bee began asking questions for this story.
In the decade before its closure, the city tested for lead contamination before and after cleanings at the gun range that took place a few times a year. More than 20 tests conducted inside the range between 2006 and 2014 found lead in nearly every corner of the building, from the firing range floor to the kitchen, that registered above levels defined by the California Department of Public Health as hazardous to human health. The levels measured were sometimes hundreds of times greater than the state’s hazard threshold. In some cases, the tests found elevated lead levels both before and after the cleanings.
The gun range operated for years with a dated ventilation system that failed to filter that contaminated dust properly, according to a 2012 assessment by an outside consultant. In March 2012, TRS Range Services, hired by the city to review gun range operations, reported that the ventilation system at the range appeared to be spewing unfiltered air from inside the building into the environment.
The first record of the city testing the range exterior for lead was more than two years later, in July 2014, and the results were striking: Two different roof vents had lead readings that registered more than 70 times higher than Department of Public Health hazard limits, according to city test records obtained through the state’s Public Records Act.
An environmental consultant conducted another round of tests in November 2014 that found elevated readings on three different parts of the roof and throughout the building’s interior.
With an internal city audit underway, City Manager John Shirey ordered the gun range closed on Christmas Eve 2014. The range still stands a few hundred feet from dozens of homes and in the middle of a park used by families and youth soccer leagues – untouched and likely in the same toxic state, according to environmental scientists from the University of California who reviewed the tests and records obtained by The Bee.
While there is no evidence the lead particles have traveled into the park or neighborhood, the experts argue that, given the extent of the contamination and danger posed by lead, the city should have cleaned the range months ago, notified park users and residents of the contamination, and tested the soil in the surrounding area.
“If you don’t clean this place up and you don’t check the soil afterward, you are just leaving a problem that could be far larger,” said Peter Green, a civil and environmental engineering researcher at the University of California, Davis, whose specialties include lead and mercury contamination in urban areas. “Either they clean it up or they are at risk of later consequences. The effects of lead have been clear for 40 years; lead is not a new, surprising problem. And this is right amongst people.”
“It’s really unforgivable,” Green said.
Lead contamination is a common risk in indoor firing ranges, a byproduct of the toxic vapor and dust generated by the firing of ammunition. An investigation by The Seattle Times in 2014 found that thousands of shooters, gun range employees and family members of those who spent time in ranges around the country have been contaminated with lead “due to poor ventilation and contact with lead-coated surfaces” at the facilities.
In an interview with The Bee in March, Sacramento city parks director Christopher Conlin initially said the city did not plan to test the soil near the range “based on the fact it’s probably pretty minimal amounts (of lead) that’s in the soil.” He said lead also could have leached into the soil from other sources, including lead paint from the gun range building or from chemicals released from nearby Sacramento Executive Airport.
Two weeks later, the city reversed course. City spokeswoman Marycon Razo said Friday that soil sampling had been conducted around the range building on April 1 and the results of that testing were expected sometime this week.
Either they clean it up or they are at risk of later consequences. The effects of lead have been clear for 40 years; lead is not a new, surprising problem. And this is right amongst people.
Peter Green, UC Davis environmental engineering researcher
During the March interview, Conlin said the city had no immediate plans to clean the gun range. Instead, he said, the Department of Parks and Recreation planned to ask the City Council for $50,000 in the budget year beginning July 1 to develop a “master plan” for Mangan Park, including a possible reuse or rehabilitation of the building.
The development of the master plan is expected to take months. After it is complete, he said, his department would ask the City Council for funding to complete possible changes to the park and gun range. That won’t happen until 2017 at the earliest.
City officials acknowledge the interior of the gun range is contaminated and should be kept off-limits to the public. But Conlin argued it is safer to leave the dust on the roof alone than to remove it, a position one of the scientists interviewed by The Bee said has some merit. Conlin said it would not be an efficient use of taxpayer dollars to clean the range now, before a master plan for the park is finished.
“I think the real question is: clean it to do what?” said Conlin, who took office in February, more than a year after the range was shut down. “As it sits right now, it’s not doing any harm to anybody because nobody’s going in there. If you clean it, if you spend that money, to do what? To simply keep it locked up until we decide what we’re going to do with it?”
Asked whether the city had a responsibility to notify park users and nearby residents about the toxic state of the gun range and lead levels recorded on the roof, Conlin replied, “We’ll take a look and make an assertion as to whether we need to do that. If experts tell us we ought to post something, we could post something.”
For now, the only sign that the range is closed is a sheet of paper taped to a side door that reads “MANGAN RANGE IS TEMPORARILY CLOSED” and provides the name and phone number of a city employee who helped oversee its operation.
Neighbors weren’t told about contamination
Built in the early 1960s, the James G. Mangan Rifle and Pistol Range for years was a popular destination for law enforcement, security firms and gun enthusiasts.
Sacramento Executive Airport borders the park to the south. To the north, directly across 34th Avenue, is the neighborhood of Mangan Park. It is a diverse area of working-class families, where modest homes selling for $200,000 fill a grid of quiet streets.
Two of the neighborhood’s homes are directly across 34th Avenue from the gun range, less than 125 feet away; more than 50 additional homes are within 500 feet of the section of the range roof where lead dust was found. The range is 250 feet from a soccer field that hosts youth games and tournaments, 125 feet from a picnic area, 225 feet from a public pool and 450 feet from a playground.
Some residents said they were upset they were never notified of the polluted state of the range.
Heman Smith’s home is the closest to the gun range, standing at the corner of 34th Avenue and Bradd Way. He and his fiancée moved there in 2004 and raised two daughters, both of whom are in college. Smith said he takes care of his third daughter, who is 32 and suffered a traumatic injury at birth that left her unable to walk or talk.
Smith, 61, said the range was a good neighbor; its clientele of law enforcement officers and security guards kept him at ease. More than a year ago, he noticed the echo of gunshots had stopped. The city never told him why.
“It could have been beneficial to tell us if it had to do with our health,” he said.
Still, he said he isn’t overly concerned. “I assume the city fulfilled its responsibility to keep us safe,” he said.
Mayra Arellano, 20, and her family have lived across the street from Smith for five years. She said the city has communicated regularly about changes planned at Mangan Park or when the park’s pool was to shut down because of budget shortfalls. “They tell us everything, but I didn’t even know (the range) was closed,” she said. “It’s weird.”
Last summer, the family had a seventh birthday party for Arellano’s sister, Marisol, in a picnic area adjacent to the gun range. Asked if she was concerned about the health impacts of living so close to the range, she replied, “Well, I am now.”
Nikiya Massie has lived on nearby Nolder Way since August with her four children, ages 9, 12, 14 and 15. She said her children play in Mangan Park two or three times a week when the weather is nice, but that she’ll tell them to avoid the area from now on.
“We should have been notified,” she said. “Any kind of contamination is dangerous. My kids have been going over there for months. It would have been easy to tell us with social media.”
In addition to years of test records showing lead contamination, top parks officials were warned by environmental consultants in 2014 that the Mangan gun range contained dangerous levels of lead dust, according to reports reviewed by The Bee.
Contamination inside the range was referenced in 2014 and 2015 in emails exchanged among parks department managers, including then-director Jim Combs, as well as in emails sent to City Hall staffers and gun range users. But the potential impact on the outside environment was rarely discussed. That’s despite warnings from consultants hired by the city that the pollution was not confined to the building’s interior.
In 2012, the city hired TRS Range Services to evaluate the design of the gun range and assess its machinery. In its subsequent report, the firm stated that the building’s “exhaust fans, when operating, appear to vent indoor air directly to the outside without any filtration.” TRS urged the city to address the areas of the roof near the vents where tests later discovered hazardous levels of lead contamination.
“If air from the range is vented externally, it should be noted that the area around the external vent will be contaminated with lead dust,” TRS wrote. “Appropriate measures should be taken to (ensure) this area is treated as contaminated.”
The TRS inspector “visually identified lead dust throughout the range.” He was joined on a tour of the facility by nine city employees, according to the firm’s report.
“There are several notable areas where potentially problematic amounts of lead have accumulated that should be immediately addressed to reduce health hazards,” the inspector wrote.
The last time city staff cleaned the gun range was in July 2014, according to city records. That fall, officials turned to environmental hygiene firm Entek to conduct a lead assessment both inside the range and on the roof.
“Clearly, there is extensive lead contamination inside of the building in every room and on the roof of the building,” the company wrote in a Nov. 20, 2014, report to the city. “Entek did not assess the lead in the soil in the immediate surrounding area of the building where lead from the roof would presumably have settled from rain and wash off from the roof.”
Entek tested dust from 39 spots inside the range for lead. The element was found in every test; the levels in all but one of those tests exceeded the state’s hazard standards, according to Entek’s report.
The highest concentration was 70,000 micrograms per square foot on a bullet target in the firing range. The ceiling in a classroom had lead dust levels that were 48 times the hazard level. Readings 14 times the hazard levels were detected on cabinets both in a kitchen and the men’s restroom.
The highest reading on the roof – 19,000 micrograms per square foot – was found on top of an exhaust fan unit; that reading is 48 times the state’s hazard level for exterior horizontal surfaces, according to Entek’s report. More than 10 feet away, on the other side of the roof, a reading of 440 micrograms per square foot was detected, slightly above the hazard threshold.
We should have been notified. Any kind of contamination is dangerous. My kids have been going over there for months.
Nikiya Massie, resident, Mangan Park neighborhood
In the weeks that followed Entek’s report, city staffers, in emails, acknowledged the severity of the conditions. Shirey “took immediate action” when he was notified of the contamination, said city spokeswoman Linda Tucker; he ordered the range closed on Dec. 24, 2014.
Combs, city parks director at the time, said in emails to city staffers that he wanted to hand over control of the range to one of the gun clubs that used the facility. According to the exchanges, doing so would require the city to clean the range and upgrade the equipment and fixtures. But that work was determined to be too costly.
“There are serious code violations and hazardous conditions in the building that must be remedied prior to re-use by the public,” Combs wrote in an email to a City Council staffer in May 2015. “Needless to say, the City does NOT have $1.3-$1.7 million to invest in rehabilitation of the gun range.”
Conlin, the new parks director, said those cost estimates for cleaning and upgrading the range were “probably conservative.”
“Simply cleaning the lead out just gets you good for about one day,” Conlin said. “Once you start shooting in there, you’ve got a ventilation system that is circa 1980-something. You’re talking about a major project to get it up and running.”
A retired Marine who said he has spent many hours firing at gun ranges, Conlin said the Mangan range was “in its heyday, probably a fantastic facility.” But it has fallen on hard times.
“Obviously it’s aged,” he said. “There is disrepair there and it was a good idea to shut it down.”
Significant hazards detailed
In January 2015, two weeks after the range was closed, a loss prevention manager in the city’s internal risk management division told Combs in an email that the city was prohibited from letting the range stand in a contaminated state for more than 90 days. She wrote that the roof should be cleaned of lead dust “ASAP,” and that the soil outside the range should be tested. Combs had asked in a previous email, “What if we just closed the doors and did nothing else at this time?”
The city auditor’s office – acting on a tip from an anonymous whistleblower who raised concerns about contamination at the gun range – released its own report in January 2015 detailing “significant lead hazards” at the facility and also called for it to be cleaned.
In the course of his examination, City Auditor Jorge Oseguera discussed conditions at the range with Shirey, parks officials and the city attorney’s office, according to emails. Shirey received Oseguera’s report after the range was closed.
Oseguera also briefly summarized the findings at a meeting of a City Council subcommittee that oversees the city’s audits and budget operations. Committee members Mayor Kevin Johson, Councilman Allen Warren and Councilman Rick Jennings did not comment during the briefing, which covered multiple whistleblower cases. The City Council has never directed staff to take action on the range contamination.
The gun range operated largely out of view of the city of Sacramento’s top management for years. In an interview with senior auditor Nicholas Cline in December 2014, senior deputy city attorney Sheryl Patterson said top city officials took notice of the facility only after a member of a local gun club was injured at the range and filed a claim.
“The claim brought the Gun Range to the attention of City management and begged the question, ‘What is the City doing owning a gun range?’ ” Patterson told Cline, according to notes from the interview.
The dangers posed by lead poisoning are at this point well documented. In young children, lead poisoning can lead to hearing loss, kidney failure, learning disabilities and behavioral problems, studies show. Adults can suffer memory loss, headaches and mood disorders, and lead poisoning has been linked to miscarriages.
Recent incidents of lead exposure have grabbed national attention.
In Flint, Mich., thousands of residents have been exposed to lead-tainted drinking water after the city switched its water supply. The new supply was more corrosive than water from the previous source, causing lead from old water lines to leach into the drinking water.
In Vernon, near Los Angeles, state regulators said a now-closed battery recycling plant exposed hundreds of homes to lead. The state is testing the soil of 10,000 homes near the plant.
Clearly, there is extensive lead contamination inside of the building in every room and on the roof of the building.
Excerpt from 2014 Entek report, assessing conditions at the gun range.
Katharine Hammond, a professor of environmental health sciences in the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, said the location of the Mangan gun range and recorded contamination levels have created “potentially an environmental hazard” that should have been addressed by the city through a thorough cleaning of the facility and testing of nearby soil.
Hammond has researched occupational and environmental health hazards, including lead exposure, for 35 years. She said lead dust can “travel quite a distance,” especially in the form of small particles. Hammond said if the dust found on the roof was small enough to be transported through the range ventilation system, it likely was small enough to be blown off the roof by wind. How much was moved – and how far – can only be determined by testing.
“Clearly lead has escaped the building and at relatively high levels,” she said. “It’s also blowing off the roof to some degree and continuing to possibly contaminate the neighborhood. And lead is lead, it’s there permanently, it doesn’t deteriorate. It’s either there (on the roof) or it’s been dispersed.”
Hammond said there are multiple ways lead dust produced at the Mangan range could have affected people who visited the park or live in nearby homes, including inhalation. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, experts said, and if lead is in the soil near the range and in the park, it could be ingested by children who touch the soil and place their fingers in their mouths.
“I don’t want to panic people, and there may not be a cause for panic,” Hammond added. “It’s an unknown at this point, but from a public health point of view, the city owes it to the citizens to do some serious checking into this. That means it should be investigated, not that they should shrug their shoulders and walk away from it.”
Hammond said, however, that there may be validity to the city’s idea of not cleaning the roof, citing the risk of disturbing the lead dust.
“It is true that just trying to clean things could create more of a problem and it has to be done very carefully,” she said.
Green, the UC Davis researcher, on the other hand, said the notion of leaving the dust on the roof is “crazy.”
“All over the country, from plumbing pipes in the city of Flint, Michigan, to contaminated wetlands, where there are high levels of lead, you clean it up, you put it in a hazardous waste site where it won’t be moved, and you replace the soil or cover it with paint if it’s on a rooftop,” he said.
Green said the city also should conduct multiple tests of the soil throughout Mangan Park, beyond the immediate vicinity of the range, and that the park should be closed while the tests are conducted.
“When you make one measurement from one spot, you just don’t know,” he said, referring to limited tests conducted on the facility’s roof. “If they get five, 10 measurements of soil and they’re all low – great, that’s good news for everyone. If it’s not low, that means they’ve got to do something. The only decision that is truly bad is to do nothing.”
Mangan gun range lead tests