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NRA's Marion Hammer wants water agency abolished over gun club dispute

George Silvernail Jr. watches as another man shoots at the Skyway Trap & Skeet Club. Pollution from lead bullets and shot fired from the club is a source of contention with the water agency.
Published Feb. 10, 2016

The National Rifle Association's most influential lobbyist blasted a state water agency Tuesday, demanding that Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature abolish the Southwest Florida Water Management District for what she called violations of the Second Amendment.

Marion Hammer, whose Florida concealed weapons permit is License No. 0000001, is upset at the agency commonly known as Swiftmud because of a decade-long conflict over a Pinellas Park gun club and lead pollution caused by spent ammunition.

Hammer, who has been lobbying for the NRA since 1978, called Swiftmud "a malignant state agency that uses unlimited tax dollars in what I can only call an evil attempt to steal private property and destroy a small private business."

"They clearly think they are above the law," Hammer, 78, said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. She's also calling for Attorney General Pam Bondi and the governor's inspector general to investigate the agency and prosecute everyone involved.

The Skyway Trap & Skeet Club, which has been around 71 years, sits next to Sawgrass Lake Park. The park, owned by Swiftmud, has had to deal with pollution caused by all the lead bullets and shot fired from the club.

In recent years the gun industry has become so concerned about lead pollution that the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturing Institute published a manual to show ranges how to avoid harming the environment — a manual prepared with the NRA's help.

The manual says the lead in spent bullets and shotgun pellets that accumulate around outdoor ranges can dissolve and spread, polluting the ground, contaminating nearby wetlands and streams, and poisoning fish and other wildlife. At indoor ranges, lead dust generated by the firing of guns can be inhaled by customers and employees, leading to health problems.

The state Department of Environmental Protection sued Skyway in 2000 over the lead contamination. The case went to mediation, during which Swiftmud offered to pay for cleaning up the gun club land if the club moved.

Swiftmud got involved because the agency, created by the Legislature in 1961, is in charge of protecting the water resources in a 16-county area with a population of 4.7 million people.

Club officials said they would not agree unless Swiftmud also bought a specific property as the club's new home, paid its moving and legal bills and reimbursed it for lost income. Swiftmud said no.

Because of that suit, Hammer prodded the Legislature in 2004 to pass a bill banning any state agency from ever suing a gun range. She called such lawsuits "back door gun control" and contended then that state officials were "drunk with power, and they think they can bully anybody they want."

The legislation said a change was necessary because the high cost of fighting off lawsuits filed by overly aggressive state regulators "threatens to destroy the sport shooting and training range industry."

However, state records showed no privately owned range had ever been driven out of business by a lawsuit mandating cleanup. Although Hammer said Skyway wasn't the sole cause of the legislation, it was the only one being sued.

Just as the measure passed, Swiftmud and the DEP reached a settlement with the gun club that resulted in the taxpayers footing the $25 million bill to clean up a million pounds of lead in the park and lake.

The club was supposed to erect a barrier to block any more shots from going into the lake, but it has not done so. Last summer Swiftmud went to court to enforce the agreement, and sought a judge's order to forbid any further shooting until the matter is resolved. Last month, a judge said the shooting would have to stop for now.

That's what angered Hammer. She contends Swiftmud failed to carry out its promise to build a berm that the shot barrier would sit atop. She also says Swiftmud's legal action violates the 2004 law signed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, although a judge has ruled otherwise.

"The district has attempted to engage Skyway in a dispute resolution process provided by the settlement agreement and remains hopeful that Skyway will proceed in good faith to honor its obligations under the agreement," Swiftmud spokeswoman Susanna Martinez Tarokh said.

She did not address Hammer's call to abolish the agency. Neither did the governor's staff, at least directly.

"We are confident water management board members and the NRA can work together on a solution that is good for everyone," Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said.

As for Bondi, her staff said any such investigation would have to be undertaken by local prosecutors. Hammer was not happy about that, declaring that Bondi's staff "always punts. But I don't let them punt. … It's a shame when you have to explain their jobs to some of her employees."

In August, the Pinellas County school system stopped sending students to Sawgrass for their fourth-grade environmental education field trips "out of an abundance of caution due to concerns about lead," district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said. She added the district did not notify parents because Florida environmental officials did not deem the levels to be dangerous to the children.

Hammer is not alone in demanding action. Allen D. Conner, who owns Roberts Mobile Home Park adjacent to Sawgrass Lake, has been coming to St. Petersburg City Council meetings for months to warn that lead contamination might seep into the city's water lines.

City officials deny that could happen.

Hammer, who was the national NRA's first female president, wields tremendous clout both in Tallahassee and nationwide. She wrote Florida's concealed-weapons law, which was then copied by 40 other states. She's also the author of the state's controversial Stand Your Ground law, which was copied by other states as well.

In 2009, when 20,000 schoolchildren signed petitions to change the state bird from the mockingbird to the osprey, Hammer — a mockingbird fan — single-handedly persuaded legislators to reject that request.

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Charlie Frago and Colleen Wright contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes on Twitter.

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