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Red Cliff Band Raises 70 Mystery Barrels Dumped by U.S. Army Into Lake Superior

Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is dredging up dozens of barrels dumped into the sacred waters by the U.S. Army in the late 1950s and early 1960s
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The mystery of more than 1,450 55-gallon barrels dumped into Lake Superior between 1959 and 1962 by the U.S. Army should be less of a mystery after an effort headed by the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to raise 70 of those barrels to review their contents and condition.

The band’s Environmental Department, working with the private environmental services company EMR Inc., is recovering the barrels within the 96-square-mile area located one to three miles offshore between Duluth and Knife River, Minnesota, in areas previously identified by sonar scans and submersible vehicles. The barrels lay 130 to 400 feet under the surface and are within at least 1.5 miles of the drinking-water intake system for Duluth and Superior, Wisconsin.

“Results of this investigation will be used to determine if the barrel contents pose any potential threat to area residents, tribes, fisheries, aquatic life or the environment,” the Red Cliff Band said in a statement. “The primary goal is to determine if further investigation or remediation is required.”

Because the drums potentially could include live munitions or other hazards, the U.S. Coast Guard has established a 700-foot safety zone around the tug Champion and barge Kokosing until August 20, while the recovery is in progress.

The tribe is blogging about the barrel recovery, said Melonee Montano, director of the tribe’s Environmental Department. One of the most recent entries: “Despite minor weather and operating delays, the project is proceeding safely, and sediment, lake water, and barrel contents are being sampled daily and shipped for laboratory analysis.” It proclaimed the work done in its most recent entry, August 15, and said data would not be available for several weeks.

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This map shows the approximate locations of the barrels dumped into Lake Superior by the U.S. Army from 1959 to 1962. (Courtesy Minnesota Pollution Control Agency)

The barrels and their content have been controversies since the late 1960s, when commercial fishermen accidentally netted 700-pound drums containing “metal parts resembling buckshot” and dumped them back into the water, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). In its investigation the MPCA found that the barrels came from the Twin Cities Army Ammunitions Plant, connected to classified production by Honeywell Corporation of anti-personnel grenades and mines. During this Cold War period, the army chose dumping of the barrels into Lake Superior by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the cheapest, most secure alternative for disposal.

In the mid-1970s there were failed attempts by hard-hat divers to locate and recover the barrels. About a decade later, amendments to the federal Superfund law and a request from the MPCA prompted the Corps to reevaluate barrel recovery. In the intervening years, seven barrels were recovered and contained mainly “ash and slag,” said Ron Swenson, an MPCA municipal division supervisor. At least 17 contaminants were identified, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); benzene, acetone, arsenic and lead. “Based on current data and information, the MPCA does not believe that the barrels present a threat to human health or the environment,” the agency reported. The cost of removing all the barrels and the potential for releasing contaminants halted the project.

Interest for the Red Cliff Band came first from individual activists, according to written responses from Montano, who is overseeing the recovery activity. “The project first began with a few extremely active Red Cliff tribal environmental activists including Walt Bresette, Jeanne Buffalo-Reyes and Judy Pratt Shelly, who were at the time following several other similar areas of concern including the DuPont Site in Washburn and Project ELF near Clam Lake, Wisconsin,” he wrote in an e-mail to ICTMN. (The DuPont property was contaminated by an explosives manufacturer, and Project ELF was a controversial Navy extremely-low-frequency radio communications site.)

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One controversy around the barrels is whether they contain radioactive materials. A Geiger counter on a sub involved in a 1990 recovery attempt was reported to have begun clicking 30 feet from the bottom of the lake, but stopped when it reached bottom. Subsequent radiation testing with Geiger counters and a more sensitive gamma-ray detector did not indicate high levels of radioactive materials in the barrels, according to the MPCA. However, an environmental activist group called NukeWatch contends radioactive materials “mostly likely” are present and believes that there is an attempt to conceal the more dangerous health and environmental risks posed by the barrels.

The testing by Red Cliff’s Barrel Recovery Project is intended to clear up some of the mystery.

“The barrel contents will be tested, as well as sediment and water from outside of the barrels,” Montano reported. “All samples will be tested for VOCs (volatile organic compounds), PAHs (polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons), explosives, metals and PCBs. Although we do not expect to find radiation, if levels are detected that are two times the level of background radiation, the samples will be tested for uranium and thorium. The parameters that are being tested are based on similar types of tests conducted on the barrels in the past, however our tests will be consistent across the entire sample population. We are also sampling a much larger percentage of the barrels than previous studies.”

The barrels are along the Minnesota shoreline of Lake Superior and not the Wisconsin shore, where the Red Cliff reservation is located, but the dump sites are within territories ceded by the Lake Superior Chippewa. Because of that, Red Cliff was able to get federal grants of more than $3 million to apply toward recovery and testing of the barrels under the U.S. Department of Defense’s Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation program.

“In 1996 the Department of Defense began a program aimed specifically at addressing the effects of past military operations on Indian lands,” Montano reported. “Due to the barrels site being of most concern and lying within our Ceded territory, we applied for and receiving funding for our first Cooperative Agreement under this program in 2004. The application and procurement of funding was about a six-month-long process. Since that time we have successfully had a continuous project funded under six cooperative agreements.”

The barrels themselves are in varying degrees of degradation, some rusting and exposing the concrete within them, making the recovery more delicate so as to keep from spreading contamination.

“The most difficult aspect has been to plan for all of the possible conditions we may encounter in the field,” Montano reported. “This type of recovery has never been conducted before, so we had no models to help us plan our operations. The contents of the barrels are unknown and the condition of the barrels is uncertain, therefore, we had to plan for a variety of contingencies.”

Tackling such a large project has been a challenge. “In regards to management, the most difficult aspect has been having little staff in our Environmental Department, which have various programs and grants to administer and the barrels project is only one of them. It requires a great deal of time and attention due to it being on such a large scale in terms of importance, funding and all of its aspects,” Montano said.

NukeWatch has alleged that nearly 500 barrels near the Knife River are being ignored in the recovery and has started an online petition to call for recovery of those specific barrels by the Army Corps of Engineers. In response to “insinuations that the tribe is ignoring potential barrel dump sites under pressure of federal agencies,” Red Cliff’s July 31 blog stated, “This insinuation is not only false but contrary to our culture and values. For countless generations the Chippewa people have depended on Lake Superior for resources. The Lake is central to our beliefs, and the Red Cliff Band believes that the protection of this sacred body of water is our responsibility, not just for the sake of the Tribe, but for all people who have the privilege of living near Lake Superior and for future generations.”

Now that the 70 barrels have been recovered, the next step is testing the materials within them, something that should be done by spring, Montano estimated. Once the contents have been determined, “The tribe will host public stakeholder meetings to discuss the results and will make a determination based on input from others (specifically Tribes) as to how to proceed.”