Red Cliff forced to dump explosives back into Lake Superior

RED CLIFF, Wis. -- The good news is that there weren't high levels of toxic substances or hazardous chemicals in any of the 25 barrels of military waste raised from the bottom of Lake Superior last summer.

Leo LaFernier
Standing in front of a projected image of three explosive ejector cups, Leo LaFernier, chairman of the Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program committee, talks about last summer's project that recovered 25 barrels the U.S. Army dumped in Lake Superior during the Cold War. (Steve Kuchera /

RED CLIFF, Wis. -- The good news is that there weren't high levels of toxic substances or hazardous chemicals in any of the 25 barrels of military waste raised from the bottom of Lake Superior last summer.

Analysis of the barrels' contents, nearby sediment and water samples show only background levels of chemicals, much as were found in similar recovery efforts in the 1990s.

"We have all of the data back ... and there's no cause for concern," said Julie Kloss Molina, a project manager for EMR, the Duluth-based contractor on the recovery effort.

The bad news is that there were thousands of tiny explosive devices in 22 of the barrels -- devices called ejector cup assemblies used to separate cluster bombs in flight -- that recovery project crews were unable to receive federal authority to bring to shore.

So with nowhere to bring them, crews on the project barge stuffed them into six new, bright orange containers, marked the spot on a GPS and dumped the detonators back into the lake, where they still sit today.


Seven months after pulling the barrels out of Lake Superior, officials of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa gave a little more information Thursday on what they found, the first major briefing to the media and public.

Among the news was word that 22 of the 25 barrels were brimming with the detonators to cluster bombs -- not the rest of the bomb parts as expected -- thousands of tiny explosives that chemical analyses showed might still explode. While none went off, and while they aren't much more powerful than a firecracker on their own, contractors were worried that one could go off and cause a larger "sympathetic explosion," Kloss Molina said.

Because there are no federal Department of Transportation approved facilities to receive explosives on the Great Lakes, and because they couldn't get a waiver, Red Cliff and EMR staff took the detonators out of the old, rusting barrels, placed them in new containers and threw them back in Lake Superior off shore from Duluth. They hope to get federal waivers to recover and bring the containers to shore in Duluth this spring or summer.

The band cut back on its earlier plan to retrieve 70 barrels to save enough money to deal with the explosives, said Melonee Montano, the band's environmental director.

The other three barrels contained the same kind of slag, ash, garbage and cluster bomb parts found during barrel recovery efforts 18 years ago. This time those materials were taken by boat to a facility on Lake Huron in Cheboygan, Mich. That answers the question of why regulatory officials in Minnesota and Wisconsin said they were left in the dark about where the materials ended up.

"We didn't transport anything that would have been regulated," meaning they were below thresholds for hazardous materials, said Kloss Molina. "We didn't transport anything within Minnesota or Wisconsin."

The $3.3 million project, in the works for more than seven years, was paid for by a Department of Defense program aimed at cleaning up old military messes left behind on Indian lands. It's believed to be the first effort off a reservation but inside ceded territory and among only two where the military waste was under water.

The current project will be considered concluded after the ejector cup detonators are raised and disposed of and after EMR finishes a detailed feasibility study on what to do next. EMR will crunch the data and conclude whether the remaining 1,400 barrels should be raised to protect human and environmental health or whether they should be allowed to continue to rust away and sink into the sediment hundreds of feet under the surface of the lake -- if it seems it would cause more ecological damage to move them.


That report, along with a cost estimate to raise the remaining barrels, is expected by September.

Red Cliff officials say they have pursued the barrel effort so far to make sure the bomb parts pose no threat to human or aquatic life, especially the fish that feed Ojibwe people. But they said that without huge amounts of additional federal money, it's not clear what will happen next.

The decision on whether to pursue additional federal money ultimately will be made by the band's barrels committee and the band's governing body.

"Red Cliff didn't put the barrels in the lake," said Rose Soulier, tribal chairwoman. But she said the band feels dedicated to finding out whether the barrels pose any threat and to removing that threat if it exists.

Soulier said band officials were just as frustrated as the public over why it took seven months to answer questions about last summer's barrel recovery effort, but she said efforts to deal with federal agencies "have been a struggle."

"We, like you, want the questions answered," Soulier said, noting state and federal regulators were invited to Thursday's media event but did not come.

Back story

Between 1959 and 1962, under orders from Army ordinance officers, an estimated 1,437 barrels were trucked from the Honeywell weapons plant in the Twin Cities to Duluth and secretly tossed off barges into Lake Superior. The 55-gallon drums were dumped roughly along a line from the eastern Duluth city limits nearly to Two Harbors, from one mile to five miles off shore.


Since 1977, when the existence of the barrels was first confirmed by the military, several attempts have been made to retrieve them and check their contents. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers combined to spend 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 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 and a team of Navy deep sea salvage divers combined to recover seven more barrels containing scrap parts from cluster bombs and other military ordnance, along with garbage, ash and concrete.

Tests of the barrel contents at that time 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 were 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 habitat loss, invasive species, mercury contamination, chemicals that can disrupt fish behavior and polluted runoff and sediment from erosion.

The Red Cliff Band entered the barrel saga in 2005, when band officials said they adopted the project as a way to attract federal military Indian lands cleanup money 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.

Julie Kloss Moline of EMR Inc.
Julie Kloss Moline of EMR Inc., an environmental engineering company in Duluth, talks about what was found in the barrels recovered last year. (Steve Kuchera /

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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