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Promise Breakers: Introduction to a Public Health Scandal

Promise after promise was broken when it came to protecting Sacramento’s workers and the public from lead hazards from a contaminated gun range housed in an aging recreational building.




Video Credits: Reported by Joe Rubin. Camera and editor Matthew Maxwell. Aerial photography Devon McMindes. Additional camera Jessica Obert

A Capital & Main investigation has confirmed five cases of lead poisoning that were linked to Sacramento’s James Mangan Rifle and Pistol Range. As we reported last December, the 54-year-old gun range was padlocked in January 2015, after tests showed toxic levels of lead dust in nearly every corner of the building. The recent indictments of state officials in Michigan for involuntary manslaughter related to the lead contamination of the city of Flint’s water supply shows what can happen when there is resolve across the political spectrum to hold officials accountable for environmental crimes. But what happens when the spotlight is dimmer — or, in the case of Sacramento, nonexistent?

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Today independent health experts caution there could be dozens — perhaps hundreds — of undiagnosed cases connected to the gun range, which was located on the grounds of a public recreation park. While internal city emails cited “sky high” levels of lead as the reason for its closure, public notices simply announced the building, situated in a working-class residential neighborhood, was “temporarily closed.” There was no mention of the word “lead.”

Yet documents obtained as part of our investigation show that officials in California’s Department of Public Health (CDPH) knew as far back as 2002 that workers at the range had levels of lead in their blood so high they could lead to organ shutdown and death.  A federal directive on lead hazards in the workplace says that such extreme cases are “high-gravity, serious” and “must be handled by inspection.” Because hazards inside the range required millions of dollars in fixes to bring it up to safe federal standards, an inspection would have almost certainly led to the facility’s permanent closure. Instead of referring the case for inspection, CDPH decided to trust city assurances that Sacramento would do better.

Read Our Earlier Mangan Park Coverage

Our year-long investigation found substantial evidence to suggest that this public facility was, at the very least, incompetently run and, at worst, may have been the victim of embezzlement.

Multiple on-the-record sources told us of a cash payment system where weapons training companies slipped cash into a safe’s deposit slot in exchange for exclusive access to the gun range – payments that for nearly 20 years went unrecorded and were never given to the city treasurer.

A Mangan Park neighborhood near the gun range.

In its heyday, the Mangan Range operated six days a week, frequently leased by companies that provided training courses for armed security guards. The 14 shooting lanes were almost always packed and the sound of gunfire reverberated throughout the blue-collar Mangan Park neighborhood. Last year, after a series of investigative reports caused state regulators to insist on more testing, high levels of lead were also found to have spread from the range to the surrounding park that is popular with children, and to nearby homes.

A 2016 criminal investigation by California’s Department of Toxic Substances (DTSC ) initially cleared the city of any wrongdoing. We found many problems with that investigation, including an insistence on the part of the assigned investigator that no California lead laws were violated. The DTSC has now admitted to Capital & Main that mistakes were made in its original investigation of the Sacramento gun range, and the agency reopened the case.

After the news broke about the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, then-President Barack Obama told that city’s residents during a visit, “Government failed you at the federal, state and local level.” While nothing has matched the scope of the Flint lead scandal, what we found comes close. Promise after promise was broken when it came to protecting Sacramento’s workers and the public from lead hazards from this gun range housed in an aging recreational building. In a pair of stories, we will present evidence of a city administration and two state regulatory agencies that were asleep at the wheel during critical moments when it came to protecting Californians.

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