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Given disposal options 50 years ago, Army decided to dump munitions-filled barrels in Lake Superior

DULUTH, Minn. — The 25 barrels recovered last summer from the depths of Lake Superior were dumped there 50 years ago under orders from the U.S. Army. Inside were scrapped cluster bombs — a new weapon considered top-secret by U.S. officials who didn’t want the design to fall into enemy hands at the height of the Cold War.

But exactly who floated the idea of dumping the scrap bomb parts into Lake Superior remains unclear.

One thing for certain is that at least one Honeywell Corp. official at the time suggested pulverizing the scrap bomb parts using a $1,299 “hammermill” crusher and then recycling the leftover metal.

In hindsight, it seems like a common-sense solution that could have saved millions of dollars in search-and-recovery efforts and years of strife.

Cluster bombs are generally hand-grenade-size explosives designed to kill people. Dropped out of an aircraft as part of a larger bomb, they separate into dozens of small bomblets covering a wide area. The bombs are controversial because they can kill noncombatants in the area. At least 77 nations have signed a treaty not to produce or use cluster bombs. The U.S. has not signed the treaty.

The bombs were made at the Twin Cities Army Ammunitions Plant by Honeywell, then based in Minneapolis, and the Army didn’t want any recognizable bomb parts to fall into the wrong hands. The Army and Honeywell tried incinerating and then “tumbling’’ the bomb parts into barrels to smash them. But neither process worked fast or well, and scrap parts were stacking up in the warehouse.

A Sept. 17, 1959, a Honeywell memo to Army officials said efforts to use tumbling barrels to smash the bomb parts wasn’t effective. But it suggested a new option, purchasing a so-called hammermill as the cheapest, most efficient way to render the bomb parts unrecognizable.

“The scrap that is available could all be salvaged in two weeks and with the present shortage of raw material this would be to everyone’s advantage," wrote a B. Brooks of Honeywell.

But the Army appeared to ignore the hammermill idea, criticizing tumbling as too expensive and slow. Instead, Honeywell was ordered to dump the barrels into Lake Superior as quickly as possible.

In a Sept. 22 memo from Capt. P.R. Dean of the Army Ordinance Corps, Dean called “for the disposal of accumulated scrap at Bldg. 502 by dumping in Lake Superior with the assistance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This action has become necessary due to the large accumulation of scrap material and the delay in arriving at the feasibility’’ of alternatives.

A memo the next day from Dean to the Corps of Engineers office in Chicago asked for the immediate assistance of Corps personnel in Duluth to carry out the dumping. Honeywell was told it would have to pay for transportation and guards for the trucks.

The memos were discovered in the 1990s by PCA officials investigating the history of the barrels.

Lake had been used as dumping ground before

It may never be known why the hammermill solution wasn’t considered. But it is clear that spending $1,299 on a tumbling machine and any other associated costs would have paled in comparison to the nearly $4 million that has been spent by state and federal agencies to retrieve and test some of the barrels.

And more than 1,400 barrels are still on the bottom of the lake.

Some people have suggested that Honeywell be ordered to pay for the barrel cleanup, similar to a federal Superfund declaration. But Swenson said the watery grave appears not to have been the company’s idea after all.

“Honeywell requested that this stuff be smashed up and recycled. It was the Army that ultimately said no, dump it in the lake,’’ Swenson said.

Swenson said his review of documents in the case never made it clear why Lake Superior seemed like a good idea. But he noted that the military had a history of using the big lake as a dumping ground.

In 1945, as World War II came to a close, officials at the same Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant where the cluster bombs were made were ordered to dispose of 1 million pounds of special .50-caliber bullets that contained white phosphorus tips. Army officials worried that the phosphorus would degrade and become unstable, posing a fire danger. So they took the bullets out of the shell casings and shipped the 500 tons of projectiles by rail to Duluth, loaded them onto barges and dumped them in the lake.

Unlike the secret barrel dumping, the ammunition dump drew several newspaper headlines to the time, heralding the lake disposal as a safety and cost-saving measure.

The bullets have never been recovered.

Back in the news

The barrels are back in the news because the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa pulled 25 of them out of the lake last summer in a $3.3 million project paid for by the U.S. government under a program to clean up messes left behind by the military on Indian lands.

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

Between 1959 and 1962, 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 were made to retrieve them and check their contents. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers together 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 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 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 there was no need to search for or test more barrels, and that leaving the remaining barrels rusting beneath 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, polluted runoff and sediment from erosion.

While some people have called for the removal of all barrels from the lake — in case some hold more-harmful contents — it’s not clear where the government would find the money to pay for it. Taxpayers spent $132,000 for each barrel Red Cliff raised last summer. At that rate, it would cost $1.8 billion to raise the remaining barrels.

Detonators were duds in ’90s

Red Cliff reported late last month that it recovered 25 barrels, far fewer than the 70 it expected to recover, in late July and August. They said they scaled back their search to save money to dispose of the barrels because they found still-active explosives inside 22 of them.

But Swenson said efforts in the 1990s found all of the explosives inert.

“We found the same things, those little pencil-eraser sized detonators. But they couldn’t get any of them to pop at that time. I think they even tried a blow torch on them and nothing happened,’’ Swenson said. “I’m not sure why the ones they found now would be more active. That doesn’t make sense.”

Red Cliff issued a brief statement last month, nearly six months after the barrel recovery effort. Based on what they found in the barrels the band said there is no immediate threat to human or environmental health. They reported finding the same material in the barrels this time as in 1990s recovery efforts.

“Two types of contents were discovered within the barrels; a composite material of incinerated metals was found in three of the barrels and munitions parts were found in the remaining 22,” the Band reported in a brief statement earlier this month. “All of the munitions parts recovered from these barrels were identified as ejection cup assemblies for BLU-4 cluster bomb devices.

“No levels of radiation above background were detected at any point during the fieldwork,” the statement said. “All samples were shipped to an independent, accredited laboratory and tested for a wide range of chemical constituents, including … metals, VOCs, PCBs, PAHs and asbestos. All of the analytical testing has been completed, and analysis is ongoing. Work will continue on this project through the spring and summer. Preliminary data results show no immediate cause for concern regarding the safety of water and fish consumption.”
 

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