Incomplete records cover risks from barrels in Lake Superior

Questions about whether military radioactive waste was dumped by the Army Corps of Engineers into Lake Superior near Duluth were left unanswered by the Minnesota Department of Health's "consultation" and the News Tribune report of its findings ("...

Questions about whether military radioactive waste was dumped by the Army Corps of Engineers into Lake Superior near Duluth were left unanswered by the Minnesota Department of Health's "consultation" and the News Tribune report of its findings ("Lake Superior barrels pose no health threat, state report says," May 31).

Indeed, the consultation's first concluding recommendation is that the dumping records be thoroughly researched -- an admission that its officials have yet to do so.

That the department didn't review even the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's St. Paul records is made clear by the consultation's claim that, "Despite one unexplainable and unconfirmed report of radioactivity near the barrels, there is no reason to believe that [they] contained radioactive wastes."

Nukewatch, a small nonprofit, has found many more, and they indicate that radioactive materials are in at least some of the barrels.

In defense of the health department's failure to review the complete record, the MPCA's St. Paul files are a mess. Some documents are missing hundreds of pages, others are misfiled under unrelated headings, and many more refer to reports, maps or appendices that have not been found. Ron Swenson, formerly in charge of the MPCA's barrel investigation, told me he had taken some records from the agency's St. Paul headquarters to its Brainerd offices.


Still available for study is a "Restoration Assessment" from the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois that mentions "Radiation Data and Lake Superior Rad Dumping: Note from Honeywell," dated April 24, 1978.

A 1985 barrel report by former MPCA Region 1 Director John Pegors, done for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, includes a "Description of Substances Possibly Present, Known or Alleged," including, "PCBs, lead, cadmium, chromium, copper, zinc, nickel, barium, uranium-234, uranium-235, uranium-238" (known as "depleted uranium"), and the "volatile organic compounds acetone, butanone, dichloroethylene, trichloroethylene, trichloromethane (chloroform), dichloromethane, carbon tetrachloride, vinyl chloride, and toluene." The three uranium isotopes were abbreviated, "Ur234, Ur235 and Ur238."

Under a section titled, "Waste States, Quantities and Characteristics," Pegors noted that the "potential exists" for these "toxic, corrosive, radioactive, persistent, soluble, flammable, reactive" wastes "to be in the barrels."

Five years later, in its 1990 Site Safety and Sampling Plan, the MPCA's Solid and Hazardous Waste Division team leader Bob Cross included "radioactive" in his list of the 1,457 barrels' "Waste Characteristics."

Mike Stich of Hazard Control Inc. of Minneapolis (now All Safe) was hired by the Army Corps to help conduct the October 1990 barrel search. In his Aug. 6, 1991 letter to John Pegors, Stich wrote, "From the very beginning I was suspicious. ... When the sub captain's Geiger counter went off and he surfaced, he was very excited and was sure that he had indeed detected something radioactive. The Corps downplayed (and even physically shielded him from the news people) the Geiger counter event. ... I'm of the opinion that Harold [Maynard], the sub pilot, did in fact detect something. He was very excited and [was] almost scared when he surfaced that day."

In an interview broadcast April 12, 1995, and still available on DVD, Duluth's KBJR-TV Channel 6 questioned Capt. Harold Maynard, the submarine operator hired by Stich, who investigated some of the dump sites with his K-350 submersible. In the report that aired, Maynard alleged a "cover up" of the presence of radiation in the barrels he examined, an accusation that he maintains to this day.

Maynard spoke with me on May 9. He said that from inside his submarine, an Army Corps Geiger counter registered increased radiation near one dump site. He recalled that the tether securing his sub to Stich's surface ship also made the Corps' Geiger counter click. Maynard told me that the Corps "has been denying that ever since," and he said the Corps would not allow him to return with his sub to the same place to verify the radiation reading.

Rather than finding "no health threat," as the News Tribune reported, the health department consultation found that "the risks of detrimental exposures to people from the barrels are unquantifiable but low." This startling self-contradiction is both irresponsible and reckless in view of evidence that is being overlooked or ignored. Given the list of official references to radiation contained in or emitted from some of the barrels, and the fact U.S. Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota and U.S. Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin have said some barrels are "perilously close" to Duluth's drinking water intake, one has to wonder what it would take to raise an alarm at the department of health.


John LaForge of Luck, Wis., and a Duluth native, is on the staff of the nonprofit Nukewatch.

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