The U.S. Border Patrol wants to spend millions of your tax dollars to clean up an old shooting range near the border with Mexico. But it could end up costing taxpayers even more.
The agency is facing a lawsuit over that range that could be settled for millions of dollars. At the end of this stark, hilly road off the aptly named Target Range Road, is a property that lies in the crosshairs of a multi-million lawsuit against the United States.
This was a shooting range used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents for target practice. It's now abandoned, though shell casings litter the ground. Last month, CBP said it will pay $3.7 million to clean this place up.
Cyndi Tuell is an attorney with the Sierra Club and is familiar with the cleanup project.
“People who own the shooting range and Customs and Border Patrol discovered there is a high level of lead and arsenic contamination as well as contamination from something called poly aromatic hydrocarbons," Tuell said.
That's a contaminant that comes from the breakdown of plastic shell casings. The lead from spent ammunition presents a whole other threat.
"The lead can runoff whenever there's a rain storm. The soil can move about the community. You can walk across the soil and it will actually get put onto your shoes and you can bring that into your home and you can pose a health threat to your kid."
The cleanup effort will be a massive undertaking.
"What they'll do is go in with trucks and remove the soil, then they'll mix that with cement and take it to a landfill for disposal," she said.
But Tuell questions the cost. She led an effort to clean up shooting ranges along Redington Pass, three years ago. The cost?
"About $500,000. And they're still not done but they're out of money."
So that's nearly four million dollars to clean up this abandoned range. Then there's a multi-million dollar lawsuit currently being fought out in U.S. District Court.
The government is being sued for at least six million dollars by a neighboring company, La Loma Grande. In its initial 2011 filing, La Loma Grande said its property was damaged by lead contamination.
The company alleges a permanent depreciation in the value of its property because of the lead. It even alleged that Border Patrol agents and other federal agents at the range fired bullets onto La Loma Grande's property. When the suit was first filed, La Loma Grande wanted more than $21 million in lost business.
Lawyers for the company declined an interview but said they're now asking for six million dollars in property value costs.
The U.S. Border Patrol in Tucson also declined an interview citing the ongoing lawsuit. But in a lengthy statement, the agency explained how it arrived at the $3.7 million cost and said:
"In reference to the cleanup of the Border Patrol’s firing range in Nogales, there are several methods generally accepted by regulatory agencies. Some of these methods include excavation and hauling away impacted soils; stabilizing and capping impacted soils in place; in-situ treatment of impacted soils; or a combination of one or more of these methods. The best approach for cleanup of a firing range is dependent on many factors including but not limited to future use of the land, proximity of the cleanup to possible sensitive human and/or environmental receptors, and cost.
“CBP conducts maintenance on ranges to collect lead rounds and uses engineering controls in accordance with industry standards to minimize impact to areas outside of the firing range.
“In this particular case, CBP selected excavation and off-site disposal of impacted soils as the appropriate cleanup method for the former range based on its potential future use. CBP currently leases the land and the selected cleanup method will allow the property owner unrestricted, future use of the land. The anticipated cleanup cost is based on removing an estimated 7,000 cubic yards of impacted soil. Industry costs for excavation, hauling and disposal of lead-impacted soils in the Nogales area range from $380 to $400 per cubic yard. Therefore, costs for this project are estimated at $2,660,000 to $2,800,000. Site restoration, to include importing clean fill material, compaction and proper grading, is estimated at $500,000 to $900,000 for a total estimated cost ranging from $3.2 to $3.7 million.
“CBP uses the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) for technical and contracting support. As of now, a contract has not yet been awarded. It is anticipated that they will solicit proposals for the cleanup in the first quarter of 2016. We have provided funding to USACE to procure the cleanup. USACE will seek bids for the project, possibly as early as January. We won’t know the actual cost until proposals are solicited. Cost estimates referenced are estimates we (CBP) put into our decision document as it is a requirement of the process.
“The main point is that we evaluated several cleanup methods and selected the best method that allows for unrestricted use of the land once the cleanup is completed. To achieve an unrestricted use of the land, we need to excavate and transport the impacted soils off site; which usually cost more than capping the land or using other options evaluated and would leave contaminated soil on the property."
Paul Arbo owns the land on which the shooting range sits. He's leased the land to the Border Patrol for nearly 40 years. He mostly uses the property as a junkyard. He was called to testify in the suit.
"To me it seems like a frivolous lawsuit, to me as a person," Arbo said.
Arbo says his property has been used as a shooting range for more than a century.
"The U.S. Army had between 10 and 12 thousand men stationed here and that range was a shooting range back then so there's a lot of lead pollution back there."
The trial phase of the lawsuit ended last month. A federal judge is scheduled to decide on the suit next week. We'll keep you updated. If you have a tip for the News 4 Tucson Investigators, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 955-4444.