Update on submerged Lake Superior barrels scheduled

Representatives from the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe are coming to Duluth next week to update officials and residents on efforts to find and raise barrels of military waste dumped in Lake Superior a half-century ago -- this time using ...

Sunken barrels in Lake Superior

Representatives from the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe are coming to Duluth next week to update officials and residents on efforts to find and raise barrels of military waste dumped in Lake Superior a half-century ago -- this time using the latest scientific techniques.

The band has been working for the past five years to identify the barrels and, eventually, raise dozens of them to confirm their contents. Red Cliff has been using U.S. Department of Defense pollution cleanup money for the effort, reviving the hunt more than a decade after state and federal agencies said they were finished working on the issue.

While research has uncovered no new information, advances in sonar and video technology over the past 15 years, since the last barrel recovery, helped pinpoint more barrel locations during surveys last summer and fall.

Band environmental officials had hoped to raise and inspect barrels this year, thanks to

$1.2 million from the Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program.


The program intends to clean up military messes left on reservations nationwide.

But the recovery has instead been moved to 2010 to make sure the specialized equipment, including submarines, will be available during the big lake's calmer summer months, said Tracey Ledder, Red Cliff environmental coordinator.

"We are now aiming for next year,'' Ledder said. "We still have several large logistical issues to finalize that would put field work attempted this year too late into the bad weather in the fall.''

New video shows rusting parts

In June, 2008 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency re-mapped several barrel dump sites and passed that information on to the Red Cliff recovery efforts.

Last autumn, the band's contractor, EMR, Inc., identified 591 "targets'' that were likely barrels. Searchers then used a remotely operated submarine to confirm the finds.

The sites were out from the Talmadge, Sucker and Lester Rivers off Duluth - the same sites where barrels were recovered in 1990 and 1994.

"The condition of these barrels demonstrated various degrees of degradation, with notable [rusting] and exposed internal concrete in many," the EMR report said. "Objects believed to be munitions parts were sometimes observed within the concrete.''


The band also hopes to secure another federal grant for $365,000 to test sediment and water around the barrels for possible contamination.

Secret bombs

At least 1,448 barrels of military waste, supposedly components of newly designed cluster bombs, were dumped across several sites off the North Shore near Duluth between 1959 and 1962, apparently in an effort to keep the bomb design out of Soviet hands. The bombs were made by Honeywell and trucked to Duluth from a Twin Cities munitions plant, placed on barges and pushed overboard offshore.

The barrels made headlines in the 1970s, when their existence was made public, and again in the 1990s when a major recovery and identification effort unfolded. Recovery efforts occurred in 1976, 1990 and 1994. During that last effort, eight barrels were brought to the surface and searched, exposing grenade-like cluster bombs, scrap metal, ash and garbage sealed in concrete inside the barrels.

Water inside some of the barrels contained levels of several hazardous substances such as PCBs, which officials say probably leached off the metals and ash inside the barrels after failed efforts to melt the munitions parts. Despite persistent rumors, officials said there's no evidence that the barrels contained more than small amounts of the hazardous chemicals or any radioactive materials.

A 1995 government report, based on the findings from the eight barrels, concluded the remaining barrels posed no apparent threat to human or environmental health. The EPA and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said they found nothing to indicate the barrels held anything but scrap munitions and that further investigation would be too expensive.

But Red Cliff officials renewed the issue in 2004, gaining several federal grants to research the history, search for more barrels and now recover enough barrels to confirm their contents beyond reasonable doubt. They want at least 70 barrels raised and inspected to give a statistically significant sample size before drawing any conclusions.

While Red Cliff is 50 miles away 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. Some band leaders worry that the fish that members eat may be tainted with chemicals from the barrels.


Suzanne Hanson, regional PCA director in Duluth, said her agency is willing to jump back into the barrels effort if something other than munitions is discovered in any barrel.

"We think it's great that Red Cliff has been able to secure the funds for this because there's no way we could have spent that kind of money on this with the [low environmental] risk factor we have assigned to the barrels,'' Hanson said. "We have so many other issues with Lake Superior that have higher risk and that have remediation efforts we can actually do."

If you go

When: 6:30 p.m. Aug. 5

Where: Duluth City Hall, Fourth Floor Mayor's Reception Room

Who: Local officials and the public.

Information: call (715) 779-3650 or e-mail redcliffnalem .

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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