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EDITORIAL: Target: Lake Michigan
Chicago Tribune
Published September 12, 2006

When the news broke about the Coast Guard's plans to conduct target practice with real ammunition on Lake Michigan, the first thought that flashed to mind was of the movie "1941." That was a comedy starring John Belushi, about skittish Californians in the days after Pearl Harbor, on the alert for a Japanese invasion that never came.

But the Coast Guard isn't joking.

It wants to establish "live-fire zones" in waters near Highland Park, Lake Forest and Waukegan and in 33 other spots around the Great Lakes. The Guard says it needs to fire at floating targets in the lakes to train for "missions relating to military operations and national security."

Coast Guard officials have promised plenty of warnings and safety measures. These exercises would only happen two or three times a year.

But still. As word has spread, so has concern.

Fishermen, boaters and others who cruise the lake or just sunbathe on the beach fret about potential dangers. Is it possible that boaters could wander unwittingly into the live-fire zones, even with warning craft stationed to keep them out? Could stray bullets zing along the lakeshore and endanger beachgoers, even though the exercises are planned for at least five miles offshore?

The Coast Guard's plans apparently surprised Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who serves on a congressional subcommittee that oversees the Guard. "When we think about the Coast Guard on the Great Lakes, we think about search-and-rescue missions, not firing machine guns," he said.

The weapons in question are 7.62 mm guns, which can fire up to 600 rounds a minute. They were mounted on ships as part of the nation's anti-terrorism efforts, according to the Federal Register. But that was only recently. And that required changes to a treaty that the U.S. and Canada signed after the War of 1812.

This proposal is, wisely, on hold for the moment. The Coast Guard has agreed to solicit more public comment and may hold public hearings, as Hoekstra urges.

It should. The people who live on the lakes deserve more information. One boater who operates out of East Chicago suggested what seems a better idea: "Why don't they just get all their people in the middle of the lake, take care of what they need to do and let the rest of us fish?"

It's been a long time since we've thought much about military training maneuvers on Lake Michigan. They were routine during World War II, including anti-aircraft guns shooting at airborne targets.

A terror threat to Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes hasn't been a topic of high concern. But it undoubtedly exists, as do threats to metropolitan Chicago. Yet as one boat association president said, "We're all for homeland security, but we have a lot of questions about this."

The Coast Guard will have compelling, or inadequate, answers. We're all ears (and earplugs).

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune



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