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Senators Battle Environmentalists Seeking to Ban Lead in Ammunition, Fishing Tackle

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As environmentalists battle to ban the use of lead in ammunition and fishing tackle out of concern for wildlife and their habitats, several U.S. lawmakers have rushed to defend the tools of hunters and fishermen with a new bill to shield such items from regulation.

Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont, and John Thune, R-S.D., co-chairmen of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, unveiled this week legislation to clarify the longstanding exemption of ammunition and its components under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which allows the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate "chemical substances" under certain circumstances.

Citing tax revenue as justification, the lawmakers say a ban would lead to higher excise taxes on more expensive bullets that would price out many hunters and fisherman.

"Hunting, shooting and fishing are more than just pastimes in Montana – they're part of our outdoor heritage," Tester said. "They're Montana values that we pass on to our kids and grandkids. And I'll fight for those values whenever Washington D.C.'s rules get in the way of commons sense."

"Outdoor activities, including hunting and fishing, not only provide recreational opportunities, but also greatly contribute to South Dakota's economy," Thune said. "The EPA's overreaching regulations in other areas are already negatively affecting jobs and businesses across the country, and I am committed to ensuring that ammunition and tackle do not become subject to arbitrary regulation."

A coalition of conservation groups is suing the Environmental Protection Agency to force a ban. They call the lawmakers' legislation "misguided" at best.

"I think it's sad," said Adam Keats, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity who is the lead attorney on the EPA lawsuit. "It's a pathetic move by elected officials who are ignoring facts, science and putting the health of the people in this country in harm's way just to appeal to a very well-heeled, wealthy lobby: the gun lobby."

"I think the bill is ridiculous," said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate with the center, which is leading the coalition of green activists. "I think it's a waste of taxpayer money. It's trying to prolong the inevitable. Lead is going to go away."

The coalition filed a lawsuit in November after the EPA rejected its petition last summer that argued the use of lead in ammo and tackle is poisoning the nation's lakes, ponds and forests. The EPA said it lacked the authority to regulate lead in ammunition and added that shells and cartridges are excluded from the definition of "chemical substances" in the toxic act.

Now environmentalists find themselves in a skirmish with lawmakers, the EPA and gun rights groups.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearms and hunting industry, says a ban on traditional ammunition would imperil the financial health of wildlife conservation, since the 11 percent federal excise tax that manufacturers pay on the sale of ammunition is a primary source of conservation funding.

But environmentalists call that argument a "nonstarter."

"I guarantee that if the EPA were to ban lead ammunition, there would be no difference in the excise tax taken by federal officials," Keats said. "It's not a rational argument. The premise requires you to believe hundreds of thousands of people who are not allowed to use lead ammunition will instead give up hunting."

Miller said the excise tax equally applies to ammunition sold regardless of its composition.

"Sales of copper-based ammunition brings in just as much money for conservationists," he said. "It's a nonissue. That tax would continue."

The foundation also says higher costs associated with alternative ammunition will price everyday consumers out of the market, pointing to the 1 percent market share of alternative ammunition.

"The economic growth of America's firearms and ammunition industry continues to be a bright spot in our country's still-ailing economy," said Lawrence Kean, senior vice president and general counsel to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "Passing this important legislation will help to ensure that our industry, which is responsible for more than 183,000 well-paying jobs and has an economic impact of more than $27.8 billion annually, continues to shine."

But Keats dismissed that as "cynical lies being perpetrated by these guys."

"It's not about anything they're saying it's about," he said.

Miller said EPA was legally wrong to reject the coalition's petition and believes the agency turned its back on the issue because it was a "hot potato" before the midterm election.

"They fully have the right to regulate lead ammunition," he said, adding that trying to argue against that is "sticking your head in the sand."