EPA and FBI agents raided a Montana ammunition maker last month but have refused to say what they were looking for or what they found.
The March 27, early-morning raid briefly shuttered operations at USA Brass Co. Inc. in Bozeman. The business has since re-opened, but federal officials won't discuss specifics.
"I cannot answer any questions about that," Lisa McClain-Vanderpool, media officer for Environmental Protection Agency Region 8, told Newsmax. "Because it's an ongoing investigation, we can't really release any information at this point.
"We're evaluating whatever it is [that agents] found," she said.
FBI officials also refused to comment, and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the state of Montana doesn't list USA Brass among its latest cases either for arraignments or court appearances.
Zach Flanagan, chief executive officer for USA Brass, hung up the phone when reached by Newsmax for comment.
What is clear is that environmentalists and gun-control activists have ammo in their sights.
In October, California became the first state to ban outright any hunting ammunition that contains lead, with a phase-out period that ends in 2019. The goal is to preserve the environment and wildlife.
"Lead poses a danger to wildlife," Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown told Newsmax. "We must manage our state's wildlife for the use and enjoyment of all Californians.
"It is time to begin this transition and provide hunters with ammunition that will allow them to continue the conservation heritage in California," Brown said.
Meanwhile, the EPA's extensive anti-lead regulations forced the closure late last year of the last lead smelting plant in the nation. The move not only left 220 people unemployed but also indirectly hit the U.S. supply of ammunition, according to one watchdog group.
The Doe Run Co. shuttered its lead smelting facility in Herculaneum, Mo., in December. It had been operating since 1892.
Mike Hammond, legislative counsel for the Gun Owners of America, told Newsmax that the closing wouldn't "shut off the production of bullets in America."
"But combined with the government's large purchases of ammunition, it will make it harder and more expensive to purchase ammunition," he said.
According to a January report by the General Accounting Office, the Department of Homeland Security has contracted to buy
more than 704 million rounds of ammunition over the next four years. That is equal to about 2,500 rounds per DHS agent every year.
Also, the Pentagon has announced a planned phase-out of lead ammunition by 2018 in favor of what it terms "green bullets," which have been in the testing phase for more than three years.
The Army now regularly uses what it calls an "enhanced performance round," billed on its website as a copper alternative that makes "the projectile non-hazardous to the environment while delivering needed performance."
The National Rifle Association has long warned about the EPA's taking action against ammunition.
"If EPA can regulate each individual component of ammunition, then EPA can effectively regulate shells and cartridges themselves,” Chris Cox, executive director of the association's Institute for Legislative Action, wrote in an August 2010 letter to then-EPA administrator Lisa Jackson.
In the USA Brass raid, NBC Montana
was tipped by witnesses who called the station and reported the presence of federal agents at the business. Apparently the agents removed items from the company and loaded them into a truck.
EPA lead criminal investigator Bert Marsden told the station that the agency was checking allegations of "environmental violations" by the company.
"We are investigating alleged violations of environmental law," Marsden said. "An investigation takes as long as it takes, and I can't provide any details as it relates to that.
"I can make a statement that there is no immediate threat to the public or the community at this time," Marsden said.
USA Brass — which collects, cleans, and then resells previously used ammo casings — has been hit by federal investigations and charges on other occasions. Last September, the Labor Department fined the company more than $45,000 for 10 different employment-related violations.
Officials with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration reported that same month that USA Brass didn't provide employees with even the most basic of protective gear — such as masks or specially designed clothing — and left them vulnerable to lead exposure.
Several weeks later, 22 USA Brass current and former workers were diagnosed by local health officials as having elevated levels of lead in their blood.
"The toxic effects of occupational exposure to lead have been well known for a long time, but this employer did not have basic safeguards to protect workers against this hazard,” Jeff Funke, area director of OSHA's office in Billings, told NBC in September.
It's unknown whether the same issues led to last month's EPA-FBI raid on USA Brass. But one former worker told the local NBC affiliate
that the company regularly ignored environmental and safety violations while he worked there.
"What I did was sort bullet shell casings all day,” the former worker said. "They gave us gloves to wear. They did have signs up that said 'hearing protection required,' but they didn't enforce it.
"They would use cement mixers and polish their shell casings with . . . some cleaning chemicals, and they would dump their wastewater into a huge bin, and take the forklift, lift it up, go outside, and dump it in the grass outside," he said. "My experience with the company is they would turn a blind eye."
The worker, who was not named in the report, said that after the OSHA incident last September, the company cracked down on safety issues and "started making us wear hearing protection, started making us wear breath masks, made sure we were wearing gloves."
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