Reporter Rob Davis was sure he had stumbled onto something when the inspection reports started to arrive: 14.5 million micrograms per square foot in Oregon; 14 million in West Virginia; 1.4 million in Ohio.
National Guard armories around the country were loaded with alarming levels of lead.
Davis knew he had discovered something even bigger when the military reacted to his initial questions with a flurry of activity: About 1,000 armories underwent new rounds of lead testing. Armories in seven states shut their doors to clean known hazards. Two states offered voluntary blood testing to soldiers.
It was an extraordinary response before we had published a word. And much more impact would follow.
In his 18-month investigation, Davis found hundreds of armories from Oregon to Maine contaminated with lead dust. People had fallen ill. Children had been exposed.
Indoor gun ranges proved to be the culprit. Every time someone fired a gun, particles spewed from lead bullets onto the range floor. Ventilation systems were supposed to contain the neurotoxin. High-powered vacuums should have captured any lingering dust. Yet Davis found systems were compromised or inadequate, and cleaning efforts were bungled. Instead of proper equipment, soldiers stirred up dust with common brooms or household vacuums – allowing the dust to spread outside the gun ranges. Storage cabinets and furniture blocked filter vents, rendering them useless. Inspectors warned the Guard about the hazards time and again, Davis found, yet nothing changed.
These armories aren’t just places where soldiers congregate to drill and practice their shooting. They are community gathering spots where classes, weddings and dances occur throughout the year. In Oregon alone, armory officials reaped $4.8 million renting out lead contaminated armory rooms to the public for baptisms, bazaars and birthday parties.
Our investigation started in Forest Grove, Oregon – home of the single highest concentration of lead dust in an American armory. Davis discovered that officials allowed children inside even though they knew about enormous lead levels permeating the building. That sparked a larger question: Was Forest Grove alone? Davis looked nationally and found toxic armories across the country.
Obtaining the inspection reports proved difficult. The Guard’s central office wouldn’t cooperate, so Davis filed more than 100 records requests in all 50 states. He amassed more than 23,000 pages of records from 41 states, enabling us to build a first-of-its-kind database of contaminated armories.
In a sweeping order announced days after our series ran, the National Guard closed every one of its toxic armories in the United States to community groups. Guard leaders pledged federal money to pay for the cleanups and set a deadline to get the work done before they would allow children and families inside. It was remarkable validation of our reporting. The Guard’s order came nearly 20 years after it had been warned by a military department audit that indoor firing ranges exposed soldiers and the public to dangerous lead dust.
Without the work of The Oregonian/OregonLive, it’s unlikely the order would have occurred at all.