Red Cliff releases more findings on Lake Superior barrels
Feb 01, 2013 (Duluth News Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa on Friday released more information on their effort to find, raise and test the contest of barrels of military waste dumped in Lake Superior a half century ago.
The band issued a news release confirming they had raised 25 barrels last summer, far short of the 70 the project had called for, and that -- as reported in the News Tribune last month -- there was nothing in the barrels considered an immediate human health or environmental concern.
The 25 barrels were recovered as between July 30 and Aug. 13, the band said Friday, and included either parts from cluster bombs or a composite of incinerated metal -- exactly what was found during the last barrel search and recovery in the 1990s.
"Preliminary data results show no immediate cause for concern regarding the safety of water and fish consumption," the band noted.
But this time, the band said in the report, they also found still-active explosives in the small devices called "ejection cup assemblies" used to split the multiple grenade-like cluster bombs apart in mid-air as they fell to the ground.
Explosives experts on board conducted tests in the ejection cup assemblies and identified an active ejection charge composed of M5 propellant. Each of the 22 barrels contained between 600 and 700 ejection cup assemblies, the report notes.
The report said the recovery team, the band's contractor, Duluth-based EMR, "faced several challenges upon the discovery of and accumulation of several thousand active ejection charges. The primary concern was the safety of the team combined with the logistical concerns regarding the transport and disposal of explosive materials."
After handling 25 barrels, Red Cliff and EMR officials, in consultation with federal agencies, made the decision to stop the recovery in order to reserve a portion of the project budget for the transport and disposal of the ejection cup assemblies. All recovered materials are securely stored while regulatory compliance details are arranged.
The $3.3 million project was funded by the U.S. Defense Department as part of an ongoing effort to clean up years of military dumps and other messes left on Indian lands nationwide.
According to Friday's report, radiation testing was conducted immediately after each recovered barrel reached the surface of the water. No levels of radiation above background were detected at any point during the fieldwork.
All samples were shipped to an independent, accredited laboratory and tested for a wide range of chemical constituents, including hazardous metals, VOCs, PCBs, PAHs and asbestos. But the band stopped short of releasing any data on which or how much of any chemicals were found.
"All of the analytical testing has been completed and analysis is ongoing. Work will continue on this project through the spring and summer. The analytical results will be used to determine if the barrel contents pose any potential threat to area residents, tribes, fisheries, aquatic life, or the environment," the band said in its statement Friday.
It's still not clear where the materials were taken to shore -- officials from state agencies in Minnesota and Wisconsin said they had no contact with the band or contractor on how the materials would be handled or disposed of.
Between 1957 and 1962, an estimated 1,457 industrial steel drums were trucked from a Honeywell weapons plant in the Twin Cities to Duluth and secretly dumped off barges into Lake Superior. The dumped 55-gallon barrels formed a line from the eastern Duluth city limits nearly to Two Harbors, from a mile to five miles off shore.
Since 1977, when the existence of the barrels was first confirmed by the military, several attempts were made to retrieve them and check their contents. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency spent more than $400,000 looking for and examining the barrels between 1990 and 1994.
A 1990 search recovered two barrels that contained grenade parts, concrete and even a Honeywell coffee cup -- but nothing highly toxic or dangerous. A 1993 PCA search using high-tech sonar and video equipment mapped hundreds of the barrels, along with crates of unused ammunition and even junked vehicles and other big chunks of trash in the area a few miles off the Duluth ship canal.
The most elaborate search occurred in 1994 when a U.S. Navy deep-water robotic submarine was used. That effort recovered seven more barrels containing scrap parts from hand grenades or cluster bombs and other military ordnance, along with garbage, ash and concrete.
Tests of the barrel contents also revealed trace amounts of 15 toxic chemicals -- including PCBs, barium, lead, cadmium and benzene -- in levels above drinking water standards but which PCA officials said were too low to be considered an environmental or human health threat or even hazardous waste.
None of the chemicals was ever found in unusual levels in the nearby Duluth water supply intake. And PCB levels in lake trout have actually declined in recent years.
PCA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials eventually concluded that there was no need to search for or test more barrels, and that leaving the remaining barrels rusting under 200 feet of water posed no major health or environmental risk. Pollution officials have said their limited staff and money would be better spent on more pressing Great Lakes issues, such as invasive species, mercury contamination and polluted runoff and erosion runoff.
Still, the barrels issue has lingered, especially among some parts of the Twin Ports environmental community who allege the military is covering up the existence of dangerous barrel contents and shirking its duty to remove them from the lake. Some groups have called for more sampling from more piles of barrels, saying testing just nine or even 79 of 1,457 barrels isn't enough to declare the entire number harmless.
Red Cliff's entry into the barrel saga started in 2005, when band officials said they adopted the project as a way to attract federal military cleanup funds to the effort. Though Red Cliff is 50 miles from the nearest known barrel dump site, the band has treaty authority to be involved in environmental and natural resource management on the lake, even in Minnesota waters, where the barrels are located.
Red Cliff initially received two federal grants totaling $210,000 in 2006 and 2007 to hire a private contractor to conduct a review of historical documents, including military papers and old newspaper clippings. Despite persistent rumors that the barrels contain hazardous or even radioactive waste, the results of that document study by EMR, released in 2008, failed to find any new information on what is inside the barrels or if there are more barrels than previously reported.
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