Research shows that weapons testing at new police training facility could expose the public to toxic chemicals, contaminate urban farm and South River

The City of Atlanta and Atlanta Police Foundation’s renderings for a new police training facility in Dekalb County, commonly referred to as “Cop City,” could pose disastrous effects for communities inside and outside the greater metro Atlanta area

This article was contributed by a local author and researcher born and raised in DeKalb County and a graduate from the Odum School of Ecology at University of Georgia. The author is an early career aquatic ecosystems ecologist who has worked in streams and wetlands from Appalachia to Puerto Rico. Their research focuses on aquatic microbial processes and their connections to climate. They are not an environmental lawyer, but emphasizes that they, like many scientists, received hazardous waste safety training for their work. This reporting is based on publicly available information, academic publications, and interviews with local residents and organizers in DeKalb County and the City of Atlanta.

You can follow the author on Twitter at @WayneBTracker or submit questions directly at [email protected].

ATLANTA — In April, the privately-funded Atlanta Police Foundation released plans to turn 150 acres of urban forest into a police training complex, also known as “Cop City. On June 7, Councilmember Joyce Sheperd introduced an ordinance that would authorize the mayor’s office to issue a ground lease of 381 acres of land for construction of the facility to APF for $10 a year. That ordinance is currently being held for a vote and there are two public comment sessions scheduled this month. The first session on Thurs., July 15 is intended for City of Atlanta residents, and the second session on Thurs., July 29 is for DeKalb County residents. While the acreage is in unincorporated DeKalb County, it is owned by the City of Atlanta. The land is known as the Old Atlanta Prison Farm and is site to a long, harrowing history of the city’s prison and police industrial complex, racism, and pillaging of Indigenous peoples of the Muskogee (Creek) tribe.

According to APF’s official renderings, the training facility will include an explosives testing site and a shooting range. If approved by the city, these weapons testing sites would be uphill from an unnamed tributary of Intrenchment Creek which drains into the endangered South River. Using a publicly available tool from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), this report provides evidence that runoff from these weapons testing sites would flow into the stream, as well as through the “urban farm” proposed in the APF’s own plans. This means people who eat produce from this farm and fish from the South River could be exposed to heavy metals and other toxic chemicals from police munitions. These plans reflect a long-term pattern of negligence by police, local governments, and their corporate backers who ignore their own pollution and put the public at risk due to conflicts of interest. 

Map

APF’s map of the Cop City released in the AJC, modified to emphasize streams and farm.

data-src="https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/hQXHZR8zwL2fP4M25PJmZ4myJSwvXakQ2mNnXbbhaP69djrEM_wxVpwW2kFYnpJVPoOUBrJ3jaafeTGe8YSSriR-jQvCL1f8eKAN_6PWikg8bX0z5BX_e9n9Rtlosg"

Composite of StreamStats projections and APF plans. Top red line shows the path of runoff into the stream. Lower red line shows the path of runoff through APF’s urban farm.

Let’s start with the basics. Shooting ranges are well-known sources of heavy metals pollution. Police munitions and their residues (bullets, explosives, “crowd control” agents, shells and canisters) contain a wide array of known toxic chemicals which can leach into water and soils for decades after their use. Once released into the environment, these chemicals can accumulate in agricultural crops and in fish that people may consume, potentially causing long-lasting damage to human health. There is precedent for citizens groups suing and winning federal cases against shooting range operators for violations of the Clean Water Act and other hazardous waste regulations. Despite the hazardous nature of police munitions, local residents presented me with evidence that the Atlanta Police Department has already littered the forest around Intrenchment Creek with bullets, shells, and crowd control grenades. This raises the question: how would plans to increase weapons testing in the area impact people and ecosystems?

To understand the public health and environmental impacts of weapons testing by the APD, we have to start by measuring the existing pollution around Intrenchment Creek.

A 2009 study from the USGS found that concentrations of lead, copper, and zinc in Intrenchment Creek and the South River exceeded the Georgia EPD’s water quality standards. Those heavy metals can be found in police munitions waste (bullets, shells, and grenades), and these water samples were collected downstream of the two existing APD shooting ranges at the Old Prison Farm. However, while the author of the USGS study did attribute these heavy metals to runoff, they could not say exactly what the source was. Unless pollution is tracked from its source, it is difficult to determine where any given pollutant came from.

Five years ago, Jackie Echols, Ph.D., Board President of the South River Watershed Alliance tried to get enforcement of runoff from a DeKalb County Police Department shooting range which threatened Stephenson Creek, a stream which runs through the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area and is the only waterway in Dekalb County that meets state water quality standards. This site is also in a predominantly Black and low-income area, highlighting the tendency for governments to place these facilities in historically disenfranchised communities. This is characteristic of what is known as environmental racism and creates what organizers call “EJ communities,” or environmental justice communities. 

After Echols pressured the EPD to do something about runoff from the shooting range entering the creek, Dekalb County was required to build berms (walls of dirt intended to slow down runoff). However, as with many remediation projects, according to Echols, nobody has checked to see if the fix actually worked. 

“If you aren’t going out every time it rains to check water quality, then you really don’t know what is going down the stream,” Echols says. “No one checks [Stephenson Creek] now, and the same thing will happen with the Prison Farm site [if the plans go through]. That’s a lot of ammunition. There will be lead contamination … It will happen. There’s just no doubt.” 

However, since the original publication of this story, it has come to light that DeKalb County has been testing Intrenchment Creek for heavy metals. Based on what data is publicly available on the Georgia EPD’s online database GOMAS, it appears that DeKalb County tested for heavy metals downstream of the two existing APD shooting ranges along Intrenchment Creek, once in 2008 and monthly from 2017 to 2020. Between May 2018 and April 2020, concentrations of lead in Intrenchment Creek exceeded Georgia EPD water quality standards on eight occasions. Copper and zinc, which can also leach from bullets, shells, and grenade canisters, were found to exceed state water quality standards on 16 and four occasions, respectively.

The publicly available USGS tool StreamStats allows users to identify stream watersheds, measure distances, and estimate the path of runoff based on topographic data. As shown in the composite map featured above, runoff from the proposed shooting range and explosives testing site would flow into a tributary of Intrenchment Creek, about 300 feet and 600 feet away, respectively. In the map below, you can follow that runoff from Intrenchment Creek to the South River. But that’s not all: the western end of the shooting range shown in APF’s renderings would drain directly through the “future urban farm site” which the APF themselves proposed. While numerous media reports and the APF themselves define the site as a “public safety training facility,” their plan to put a farm directly in the path of runoff from the shooting range seems to contradict that label. 

Map
data-src="https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/hQXHZR8zwL2fP4M25PJmZ4myJSwvXakQ2mNnXbbhaP69djrEM_wxVpwW2kFYnpJVPoOUBrJ3jaafeTGe8YSSriR-jQvCL1f8eKAN_6PWikg8bX0z5BX_e9n9Rtlosg"

Top: Screenshot of a StreamStats flow path projection showing that runoff from the proposed Cop City shooting range would end up in the South. Bottom: Composite of APF plans and StreamStats projections, with red lines showing the projected paths of runoff from the shooting range.

While the elected officials ignore the issue, residents are already confronted on a regular basis with the sounds of explosions and gunfire. The APD currently uses the Old Prison Farm property as a testing-ground for firearms, explosives, and crowd control weapons.

“You don’t have to be on the prison farm property to hear police out there shooting,” says Margaret Spalding, a resident of south Dekalb county and a cofounder of the South River Forest Coalition. “You could be across the creek at Intrenchment Creek Park, which is a public park, or in the neighborhoods adjacent and you hear gunshots going off … You’re not sure if you need to duck.” Spalding also says many of her neighbors didn’t know the gunfire was from police. Some reportedly thought the sounds were related to crime, and so they stayed away from the park due to fear. 

Joe Peery, a resident of East Atlanta and activist with Save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, frequently gives tours of the property. Peery is also an organizer with Stop the Swap, which is currently spearheading a legal battle against Blackhall Studios for their proposed land swap with DeKalb County involving the Intrenchment Creek property, which is right next to the Old Atlanta Prison Farm land. The two groups are now part of what is known as the South River Forest Coalition. Peery says he usually avoids the old shooting range for fear of catching a stray bullet or running into confrontational police. Still, over the years he has visited the range multiple times, before and after the APF began their campaign to build Cop City. 

“When I went there a few years ago, I mean I was just stunned,” he told me. “There were just thousands of shells everywhere!” But then, when he returned to the site the night before members of the Atlanta City Council reportedly toured the property with engineers, the place had been swept mostly clean. All that remained, he said, were empty ammunition boxes and a used “OC Triple-Chaser® Pyrotechnic Grenade”. 

“They probably cleaned up before they did that tour,” Peery said. 

Peery says he heard rumors that the APD isn\’t supposed to use this site as a shooting range anymore, while Spalding corroborates that they indeed still use this range. Peery found ammo boxes and canisters on the site just last week. However, during public presentations the APF doesn’t appear to discuss current operations on this range; instead, they locate the APD’s official shooting range across Key Road from the Old Prison Farm, behind the Donzi Lane landfill (see maps of both below). Whether or not the APD or APF admit that the old range is still in use, studies show that lead pollution on old shooting ranges can persist for decades. An environmental impact study and archaeological study would provide more information, but the city government has yet to put forward either or provide that necessary data to residents.

While police can sweep the range for shells, they can’t recover the lead rounds fired into the forest. That’s why the EPA advises strongly against building shooting ranges where lead may reach bodies of water. The targets on the prison farm shooting range run about parallel to Intrenchment Creek and are about 250 feet away. For reference, the average bullet can travel several thousand feet when fired. Peery says he’s visited the official shooting range located behind the Donzi Lane Landfill as well. Shooting there also faces Intrenchment Creek, which is only about 100 feet from the range. The placement of these sites seems to go against EPA guidelines which state that shooting should not be directed at or over water bodies due to the risk of lead contamination. In effect, this could potentially make the APD vulnerable to lawsuits under the Clean Water Act.

data-src="https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/JJMKC0AaqY1pbo-1ZhvzU9V9KlyVXzFu6nxZHSJjFLF_KUBH6G3PcuT0vsq4S-VT42fNB0MTAe3QJzYwQsPFuhFS9taXeIqMLMgbUq2j47mzMpgwfge2G9FUMDg9hw"
data-src="https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/djj4T12_57J1wmJqdF4ix1w7O1Ws5gqtTLhhrsnAvgDEpKAvMZGJlT8jVSd07M5TlOjy5s7MzPxaspV72CDs79sM6vHFbwcoF_3nZGE_6Cc-iYQifjWU_K0NwTBnCA"

Top: Shooting and explosives range on the Old Prison Farm property. Bottom: Shooting range across Key Road from the Prison Farm, behind the Donzi Lane Landfill. Credit: Joe Peery, Google Maps

While the psychological toll of noise pollution from guns and explosives next to neighborhoods cannot be overlooked, it seems the public may be even less aware of the silent hazards these weapons leave behind. When I asked Peery if he had photographs of munitions waste from the Old Prison Farm, he sent me photos of a fragmented OC Triple-Chaser® Pyrotechnic Grenade which he was holding in his bare hands. 

It is imperative to understand that, for several reasons, you should not touch these if you see them. This grenade specifically contains heavy metals and may also contain explosive residues, residual active compounds, and hazardous decomposition products. Furthermore, sometimes these weapons fail to properly detonate, meaning some may pose an explosive risk. Peery was afraid of getting shot, but despite his experience exploring the area, he was unaware of the chemical hazards posed by munitions waste.

data-src="https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/5aMAC5F2ZB--fxSPkJ3mxMW-CipQVbpa3PU83maxBAtKJroWbnXKIeB5YVR7Lb2kpIVVXcUjKhIPRZ8C8XqNUYi660bfUzt4HIgq-nBGn2Hyb80NW9k8f_XyjEpCWA"
data-src="https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/mLJuQjsFerSD9S_OOs5QB2OQ8joJ1AXEKM40qa8rzhs2EhiNO4cida18e00iHhbMtEKzJAunUnDmWaXe_p2c0b_93L-RaDAPQAgd0u8ORgVftzZ3GU8TcX7qeplJCQ"

WARNING: If you find the remains of police grenades DO NOT TOUCH THEM as they may be hazardous. The person who took these photographs was unaware of the risks. Residual materials “should be treated as hazardous,” and should not be thrown out with household garbage. If you find one of these, tell the APD that they are legally obligated to dispose of these materials in accordance with hazardous waste regulations.

Photo credit: Joe Peery

The shooting range is not the only place where you can find these grenades. You may find them littering the woods and even on the bank of Intrenchment Creek. That’s where Brad B., a resident of unincorporated Dekalb County who requested we not include his full name, found a used CS Continuous Discharge Grenade, also known as a tear gas candle. Peery has also seen similar canisters in the forest, far from the official range. 

It remains unclear whether the APD is testing these munitions in the forest or if these canisters were carried into the forest by stormwater from the shooting range. We reached out to APF with questions for this story, but did receive a reply or comment. In either case, the presence of these hazardous materials off range shows that police are not fulfilling their obligation to abide by EPA guidelines for hazardous waste management.

According to the official safety data sheet (SDS) for the CS grenade: “Danger to drinking water even if small quantities leak into the ground… Toxic for aquatic organisms. Do not allow product to reach ground water, water course or sewage system… The user of this material has the responsibility to dispose of unused material, residues and containers in compliance with all relevant local, state and federal laws and regulations regarding treatment, storage and disposal for hazardous and nonhazardous wastes. Residual materials should be treated as hazardous.”

A
A

A CS Continuous Discharge Grenade found on the bank of Intrenchment Creek, on the Old Prison Farm side of the creek.

Photo credit: Brad B.

This CS grenade is not an outlier; it is the norm for police weaponry. A long list of police munitions contains hazardous chemicals, which is why some scientists and activists have called for a ban on their use against protestors. Some police have said these weapons do more to escalate violence than to keep the peace. Whatever their tactical efficacy is, the science is worth repeating: Bullets, shells, and spent grenade canisters contain heavy metals like lead, antimony, copper, zinc and more which can contaminate soils and water, accumulate in plants and fish, and can cause long-lasting damage to human health. Residues from common explosive chemicals can also be highly toxic, accumulate in plants, and may persist in the environment for decades. These pollutants can be transported great distances by streams and rivers, meaning that people downstream of Atlanta could be impacted.

Curiously, the state of Georgia’s official designated use for the South River is “fishing”. The 2020 guidelines for fish consumption released by the Georgia EPD place little to no restrictions on the consumption of fish from the South River, despite overwhelming evidence of pollution. Again, the EPD leaves the relevant testing up to local governments which leaves much room for conflicts of interest. If police in Atlanta release chemicals into the South River that accumulate in fish, a fisherman in Rockdale County, Henry County, or Butts County could end up consuming those chemicals at higher concentrations than exist in the water. Those who support the use of these weapons have to explain why a fisherman three counties away should suffer the consequences of police negligence. 

“What Atlanta is planning is just one more indication of what little respect they have for folks who live downstream,” Echols says, comparing Cop City’s potential impacts to the raw sewage Atlanta already puts into the South River.

During a public presentation on Mon., July 12, the APF stated that police have been training on the Old Prison Farm property for 50 years. In the absence of environmental monitoring, we know almost nothing about how this half century of weapons pollution has impacted the South River watershed or its people. The issue is so ignored that police weapon ranges are not regulated as hazardous waste sites by the state. What limited enforcement has occurred at the DeKalb shooting range was not based on hazardous waste regulations, but on stormwater runoff regulations. 

“It wasn’t the metals that got EPD’s attention, it was the muddy water,” Echols clarifies. 

Without comprehensive monitoring of existing police training sites, we cannot estimate the true public health and environmental costs of Cop City. More research exists on pollution from federally-owned military testing sites, which is a low bar. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Defense admitted that 15 million acres of land were contaminated by munitions and that clean-up would cost somewhere between $8 billion and $35 billion. In 2017, that figure was raised to 40 million acres — an area larger than the state of Florida — with costs estimated into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Considering the ongoing militarization of police, it is concerning that so little research exists on pollution from police munitions.

Those in favor of Cop City will promise to build a wall of dirt to slow down runoff from the shooting range. They may promise “green bullets” and other techno-fixes. However, none of these compromises ever seem to include the comprehensive environmental monitoring required to track pollution from past, present, and future weapons testing. 

Furthermore, without any monitoring of existing pollution, there is no way to know whether proposed fixes are effective. Comprehensive monitoring does not mean testing once or annually; it means testing “every time it rains.” Perhaps this has been moved off the table because it costs more money, or because it would expose past negligence by police and local governments. In either case, this information vacuum allows politicians and their corporate backers to defund resources for communities while expanding police resources and bloating police budgets with little to no resistance. They are used to this being easy.

This could help explain why the corporate-funded APF has the gall to put a farm right next to a source of hazardous runoff: they are not concerned about what chemicals may end up in people’s food or bodies. Moreover, as research from organizations like Energy Justice Network, demographics of EJ communities and infamous examples such as the Flint water crisis demonstrate, low-income Black and brown communities are especially vulnerable. As public awareness grows, so does the movement to “Stop Cop City”. The APF and Atlanta City Council will have to explain how exposing people to heavy metals enhances public safety.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated there are no regulatory agencies measuring Intrenchment Creek for heavy metals. The article has been updated to clarify that DeKalb County has been testing Intrenchment Creek for heavy metals, and that concentrations of lead in Intrenchment Creek exceeded Georgia EPD water quality standards on eight occasions.

We deserve a press that is free of corporate and political influence.

The need for a free press and autonomous journalism is more present today than ever. We are a purely grassroots media organization, meaning we don’t accept any money from politicians, advertisers, or outside funders.

Can you chip in a small donation of $5 today? You can make it monthly here — your donation will ensure the survival of independent, local media during a time we need it most.

Donate Today