In Colorado, there is a town called Leadville. The town got that name because the area is rich in lead, and lead mines were the earliest economy there. The town was built on lead,...literally. Lead runs through the entire crust of the earth underneath and around Leadville. Yet, despite this, the water pumped from the ground underneath Leadville has never been shown to be toxic. It tastes nice, and residents of Leadville have no higher occurrance of cancer or lead-based illness than almost anywhere else in the country.
But politicians hostile to guns have been using growing public concern for the environment in recent decades as a tool for trying to limit and harrass gun owners, by claiming that lead projectiles deposited into backstops at shooting ranges contaminate ground water that seeps into aquifers and water tables. But an unforseen consequence of making such accusations is that knee-jerk environmentalists take that junk-science and don't merely attack civilian gun use, but military activity as well.
And so it has developed over the last few decades that the Army has been under pressure to develop lead-free alternative ammunition; if not for general use in war, then at least for use in training, which primarily happens on U.S. soil. And it is that soil which we are most concerned about.
Developing a lead-free cartridge is not as easy as it seems. There are many technological and performance hurdles that have to be overcome. But in the 90's, the Army introduced a "green" bullet for the infantryman's service rifle that it had spent years developing. Using tungsten instead of lead as the main component, it was touted as being the solution to evironmental concerns over contamination of water supplies by gun ranges. And it wasn't cheap, either. At 15 cents more per round above the cost of traditional lead-based rounds, the "green" ammo was almost double the cost.
But research by University of Arizona Professor of Pediatrics, Mark Witten, found that tungsten is actually much more toxic than was previously believed, and elevates the risk for cancer. Study of cancer clusters in Fallon, Nevada and Sierra Vista, Arizona (both hubs of tungsten mining activity) have led reseachers to conclude that tungsten is to blame. As tungsten's toxicity has become known, some leaders have become alarmed that the "green" ammo designed to be eco-friendly and non-toxic has in fact been making the previously phantom problem of water contamination very real, and have demanded use of this ammo stop. Mitt Romney, as Governor of Massachesetts, was the first to demand a halt to the use of tungsten ammo in 2004, ordering the Massachusetts National Guard to cease its use immediately. Other select governors have followed suit, and even some base commanders have exercized their own discretion to not use it.
The Army's Lake City Munitions Plant in Missouri stopped producing the projectiles and loaded ammunition when it became unclear if existing stockpiles would ever be used, and in September of 2008 sold 95,000 tons of incomplete projectiles "in various stages of production" for scrap at fire sale prices. Over 90 million rounds of this "green" ammo has already been expended in the U.S. in training, and estimates that at least that much remains in inventory.
Fast forward to this week.
The ARMY TIMES announces that soldiers in Afghanistan will be receiving the "new" Enhanced Performance Round. Listed as "lead-free", the ARMY TIMES never reveals what alternative component is used in the ammunition, but among the listed attributes of the EPR bullet is "improved hard-target capability",...which certainly sounds like tungsten to me. (Tungsten cores have been used in armor-piercing ammo since before WW2.)
Could it be that the Army finally found a way to dispose of all that toxic tungsten ammo it has in inventory;...expend it on the enemy?!
After all, if this stuff gets into the Afghan water table and rates of cancer for generations in Afghanistan increase, it can always be blamed on ordnance expended by the Russians.