I spent 18 months investigating National Guard armories across the country, finding that hundreds have been contaminated by lead dust from indoor shooting ranges. Lead spread almost everywhere imaginable in armories — inspectors found lead on ice machines, refrigerators, a coffee machine, boxing bag, floors and shelves where kids’ toys were stored. Even a deli meat slicer. It contaminated offices, classrooms, assembly halls and entire HVAC systems.

Armories are a part of the fabric of America. They're community gathering halls that not only house our citizen-soldiers for monthly drill weekends but also baby showers, weddings, scout meetings, banquets and sleepovers.

Even after testing showed Oregon’s armories were grossly contaminated with lead, my reporting found that elementary school kids from an Oregon town were allowed to sleep on a floor where inspectors once found lead at levels 650 times higher than the U.S. EPA considers safe for young kids. Inspectors had just surveyed the armory the previous month, finding lead in every sample they took.

Since our story published online last Friday, we’ve already seen lawmakers in two states call for more disclosure from their state Guard units. More reporters across the country are working on stories using the thousands of pages of records we published along with my report.

You can read my article here: http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/page/toxic_lead_dust_in_national_guard_armories.html

Proof: https://i.redd.it/hhvj0ksxa12y.jpg

Update: That's a wrap. Thanks for your questions. I'll circle back around this afternoon if there are any Qs lingering. Thanks for stopping by.

Comments: 61 • Responses: 19  • Date: 

pokoook11 karma

Sorry, but I'm not from America. What is an armoury? My definition is simply a gun storeroom. Where does the lead originate from? Gsr?

robdaviswrites9 karma

They are where National Guard soldiers store their weapons and meet for monthly drill weekends. In hundreds of towns across the country, they're also community gathering halls, rented out for weddings and other public events.

lauren231458 karma

Hi Rob! In your article series, you refer to a report by the DoD Inspector General and I was wondering if that’s publicly available and you’d be willing to share it?

lauren231455 karma

Thanks! Follow-up question. You also say, "The National Guard in September 2015 directed states to thoroughly inspect their armories." Where could I find out more info on that?

NocturnusGonzodus1 karma

Just out of curiousity, seeing as you shared it. Is this something I would have been able to an FOIA request on?

robdaviswrites1 karma

This was already posted publicly online. We filed a FOIA to see if the IG had any documentation that would explain why it prematurely closed the case file and didn't get a single page of records in response.

We posted every inspection we received through FOIA, mapped state by state here: http://projects.oregonlive.com/armories/map/

robdaviswrites8 karma

I'll start by answering one question from The Oregonian's Facebook page: Where did the lead come from and doesn't the military use full metal jacketed bullets?

The indoor firing ranges in National Guard armories were used for a variety of weapons training -- handguns, shotguns, etc. Many ranges did not support .556 combat rounds.

Unless they are specifically described as containing a 'lead-free primer,' cartridges typically have lead compounds like lead styphnate in their primers (it's an explosive that ignites the gunpowder, which propels the bullet). The numbers I've seen put it at about 10 milligrams of lead per bullet primer. This vaporizes into fumes when it explodes and poses an inhalation risk to shooters.

Also worth noting that the Guard's ranges were not only used by soldiers, but also local police, security guards, community members, etc. So it's hard to paint the type of cartridges fired with a broad brush. It's a bit of a mishmash from range to range, state to state.

Cougar_90007 karma

What are other indoor ranges doing to control lead levels and why are NG armories not following suit?

Was there ever proposed legislation that was vetoed or killed in committee that would have protected armories better from lead contamination?

robdaviswrites5 karma

Lead is a serious hazard in indoor firing ranges of all stripes. The Seattle Times had a fantastic investigation in 2014 that looked at the hazards and featured some efforts from ranges that have worked to modernize their ventilation and lead-control systems. Check it out here: http://projects.seattletimes.com/2014/loaded-with-lead/1/

The National Guard was basically on its own to deal with this issue. The Defense Department inspector general told it to move on it in 1998; the Guard said it would fix it by 2010. The IG's report was sent to Congress but I'm not aware of any hearings or legislation that resulted from it.

flipwashington7 karma

Was it difficult to secure the time/funding for this investigation? It seems like deep dive investigative reporting is becoming more rare these days. Is the Oregonian committed to doing these types of stories in the future?

robdaviswrites6 karma

I had a huge amount of support from my editors during this investigation. They encouraged it from the start. It wouldn't have happened without them. Mark Katches, our top editor, will tell you that The Oregonian is absolutely committed to this work -- our watchdog team is larger than it's ever been.

asdfouhenodgouht7 karma

Hi Rob, great story. A few questions:

  • Some commenters seemed to see your story as a roundabout way of calling for gun control. What's your response to them?

  • This project clearly took a long time. How'd you stay focused?

  • Was the writing or reporting easier? Why?

robdaviswrites9 karma

Thank you. Taking those point by point:

  • No one's suggesting that soldiers not train with guns or go to war without guns. This is a story about the failure to clean up lead amid the many, many warnings from safety inspectors who told military leaders that lead was spreading in the buildings. (Worth noting that lead also resulted from burning leaded fuel indoors, weapons cleanings in public spaces and deteriorating lead paint -- though the ranges were the predominant source.)

  • I had a pretty clear mental checklist and phases to the reporting, which helped it stay on track. Frequent story memos to my editors keeping them abreast of the progress were also helpful.

  • Reporting this was slightly easier. Pulling the threads from what ended up being 23,000+ pages of documents was a challenge.

lobsterpotamous6 karma

What would it cost to remediate these armories? Per armory and nationwide? And how much is that compared to a typical operating budget for these armories?

robdaviswrites5 karma

Oregon estimates it'll cost $21.6 million to clean the firing ranges in its armories and convert them to other uses. It spent $2M cleaning one armory that was grossly contaminated.

Can't tell you offhand what the O&M budget for an armory would be annually. But this is a sizable chunk of change. Oregon already had a deferred maintenance wishlist of $80M for all its armories statewide.

Other states have spent less on cleanings, but they've also seen those cleanings fail to remove all the lead.

TheWarDoctor3 karma

What's life like being occasionally mistaken for Jason Sudeikis?

robdaviswrites3 karma

bogusnot2 karma

One obvious challenge to keeping track of pollutants is the ability to document the sources of pollution. What challenges or barriers are there to reporting and investigating pollution?

robdaviswrites1 karma

In this case, the dust was often invisible. But because it was such a persistent risk inside these Guard armories, inspectors frequently surveyed to see where it was and whether floors/walls/former ranges were contaminated or not. Those reports, which gathered 20,000 pages of, were extraordinarily insightful and revelatory. They formed the basis for the investigation and for this interactive, which our data team built: http://projects.oregonlive.com/armories/map

KMatthewJ2 karma

Why did you decide to cover this subject? Do you like cookies? If so, what is your favorite type?

robdaviswrites2 karma

A colleague requested and received an inspection in an Oregon armory that showed that lead had engulfed the building. It specifically warned military leaders to keep the public out. They didn't. We wanted to know how common that was.

Toll House chocolate chip, all the way.

SureSpray30002 karma

Do you think is an unintentional oversight of those in charge of making/maintaining them?

robdaviswrites3 karma

Good question. I think it's a combination of neglect and carelessness. The National Guard was clearly warned about this risk in 1998 and took steps to begin addressing it -- then didn't follow through.

At a state level, here in Oregon, state officials didn't act with much sense of caution for people coming into armories. Even after inspectors warned them to keep the public out of one armory, they didn't immediately halt public use. Kids kept coming in. A few months later, after an official told Oregon's top Guard leader about the second dirtiest armory, in Coos Bay, elementary school kids came and held a sleepover on a floor where lead was frequently found. No one could explain why those things were allowed to happen beyond saying very vaguely that 'mistakes were made.'

robdaviswrites1 karma

Alright folks, that's a wrap. Thanks for your questions. I'll circle back around this afternoon if there are any Qs lingering. Thanks for stopping by.

UNSC_Luke_10211 karma

I'm a little late to the party, but do you have to wear a hazmat suit when you do your job? It seems that lead poisoning would be a big deal in your field.

robdaviswrites2 karma

Fortunately, no. I did wear full shoe coverings when testing for lead in a former armory (where we found lead) because I didn't want to track it home.

allwordsaremadeup1 karma

Is there statistical proof that people are getting sick from this? Lead related illnesses that can be found higher in populations that spend more time at armories?

robdaviswrites2 karma

I found sick people who worked in a former armory in Helena, Montana, which was contaminated. Two had blood lead levels that crept above average the longer they worked in the building; two had blood lead levels that would be considered elevated. At the level in one of them, a child would lose ~6 IQ points.

In general, there's not much statistical analysis to be had comparing the armory- and non-armory-going populations. The state health officials I spoke with generally had never considered armories to be a potential exposure vector for the lead poisoning cases they investigate. They added questions to their questionnaires as a result, which is great. But at this point, I suspect it's a little late for that to have much impact, presuming that the Oregon Guard lives up to its commitment to keep these buildings clean.

In troops, blood testing of Guardsmen and Guardswomen in Oregon was haphazard and the Pentagon doesn't track lead poisonings in troops in a centralized way. The Oregon Guard tested the blood of just six soldiers in 2014 (vs. 6000 in the Oregon Guard). They tested 173 last year; the highest blood lead level was 4 ug/dl, just under the level considered elevated. Still, even that is enough to steal IQ points from a young child.

bhaarrr1 karma

What are your thoughts on the The Oregonian now that the website is almost entirely clickbait and/or slideshows? Are you aware that it is hard to take any journalism there seriously when it is next to such contentless filler?

robdaviswrites2 karma

Just this year, we've published my 18-month investigation. I also spent time investigating Portland's toxic air, work that led to the resignation of a top state official. My colleagues have revealed the dire state of Oregon's groundwater and a sad story of the mishandled case in which an inmate died in a county jail despite pleas for help. We've published dozens of stories probing the lead in Portland Public Schools' drinking water. A colleague exposed decrepit conditions at tribal fishing villages, prompting immediate calls for improvements by members of Congress. We revealed a fraud in a state renewable energy tax-credit program, prompting investigations, resignations and an indictment.

So yeah, I disagree with your sentiment. My colleagues are killing it.

Zan_H0 karma

What are your thoughts on oatmeal cookies?

robdaviswrites1 karma

With or without gumdrops?

Zan_H1 karma

Up to you

robdaviswrites1 karma

With gumdrops, I support them.