WILLMAR — Every year the city of Willmar pays for the indoor gun range in the basement of the Willmar City Auditorium to undergo a deep cleaning to lower the contamination from the lead shot used by shooters.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development standard had been 40 parts per million. Now it is significantly lower at 10 parts per million and those standards are now being pressed by not just HUD, but also the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies.
"Below 10 is uncharted territory," said Chris Simon, Willmar building maintenance supervisor.
The city has had problems in the past reaching the old standard, with the cleaning company having to come back several times. There was very little hope at Wednesday's Willmar City Council Public Works / Public Safety Committee meeting that the city would be able to meet the new standard.
"The reality is we won't be able to get down to the 10," said Councilor Julie Asmus.
Because of the shared certainty among staff and the council members sitting on the committee, the question is now what to do at the range. Two choices were discussed at the meeting: Either close the range for good or allow users to fire only lead-free shot, usually made of steel or bismuth-tin.
"It is our responsibility to figure out what to do," said Councilor Andrew Plowman.
The indoor range has been a challenge for years. The City Auditorium had to undergo an expensive remodel, including the installation of a separate air ventilation system for the range because lead from the range had contaminated the entire building.
And in 2017 the range was closed briefly due to safety concerns regarding the lead levels and the condition of the ballistic blocks on the walls and backstop of the range which capture the rounds users fire. Those blocks were replaced in 2017 and again last year. The city also budgets $25,000 a year for annual cleaning.
"The range has been an issue since day one," said Sean Christensen, Willmar Public Works director.
The city's range is unique. Willmar is one of only maybe a handful of city-owned gun ranges in the state. Also, gun ranges are usually not located in a public auditorium used by adults and children, Christensen said. It has been difficult for the city to find a state rule that fits the city's special circumstances.
"We are trying to apply rules and regulations to our situation," said City Administrator Brian Gramentz.
While staff were unable to say for sure what the state would do if the city did not meet the new lead standards, not following them could open the city up to liability issues.
"If someone gets sick or someone gets potential lead-type issues or sickness, and we didn't clean to those standards, we could have some liability issues," Christensen said.
The council in the past has done what it can to keep the range open for users. The city works in partnership with the Willmar Rifle and Pistol Club to offer open shooting at the range during the winter months. The range is also used for gun safety and open carry classes for adults and youth. The council has kept the rental rates for the range low, even though the range's expenses are much higher than the revenue the city receives.
However, with this latest blow, even those on the council who have been advocates for the range, such as Plowman, say changes need to happen.
"The writing is on the wall, with the change in guidelines from the EPA" and HUD, said Plowman. "This is unattainable and is impractical from a budgeting perspective."
While no decisions were made and the city will talk with the Willmar club about these issues and gather members' input, the consensus at the meeting was the range will have to be lead-free or closed for good. The city doesn't want to make this decision, but the standards are giving them no choice.
"It is completely not feasible for us to continue things as they are," Plowman said.