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Lake Superior barrels report: Cluster bomb parts, no toxins found so far

DULUTH, Minn. — Officials of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa on Tuesday released the first details on last September’s effort to retrieve 1950s munitions parts from the bottom of Lake Superior, saying the stuff has now been disposed of and nothing found so far has been toxic.

The September effort retrieved the munitions found in 22 barrels that were first raised in the summer of 2012, but then chucked back overboard because the Band and its contractors didn’t have the proper permits or equipment to deal with the Cold War vintage munitions.

The munitions were still live “ejection cup assemblies” for cluster bombs manufactured by the Honeywell Corp. in the 1950s. Red Cliff staff and their contractors retrieving the 22 barrels in 2012 also didn’t feel safe handling the munitions, which, while a half-century old and quite small, were potentially still volatile. As many as 700 of the ejector cups were found in each of the 22 barrels.

Instead, crews on the barge in 2012 placed the potentially explosive contents in tubs and sank them back in the lake, marking the spot on GPS.

More than a year later, this past September, crews went back and recovered the tubs containing the explosives, transferring them into “lined salvage barrels,” including the ejector cups and any water in the tubs, the report released Tuesday noted.

The material was taken on board a barge to the Duluth Timber Co. dock, off Garfield Avenue in Duluth, which had been picked as a secure staging area for transferring the barrels to a waiting transport truck that delivered the barrels to the Veolia Environmental disposal facility in Sauget, Ill., where they were destroyed.

Meanwhile, the nonhazardous materials found in the other barrels recovered in 2012, which had been stored at Durocher Marine in Cheboygan, Mich., were later transported by truck for disposal to the Veolia Environmental facility in Menomonee Falls, Wis., where they were destroyed.

As they said in an earlier report, Red Cliff officials reiterated Tuesday that they have found nothing obviously toxic to people or the environment in any of the recovered barrels. So far “results show no immediate cause for concern regarding the safety of water and fish consumption.”

But Red Cliff officials say they are still awaiting the result of some tests and will address final results in a report expected to be released in August, more than two years after the barrels were recovered.

Red Cliff retrieved a total of 25 barrels form the lake bottom in 2012 as part of a $3.3 million federally funded project to take yet another look at the once-mysterious barrels secretly dumped in the lake in the 1950s under the shroud of Cold War secrecy.

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 about 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 some barrels 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. Another, more 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 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. (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, polluted runoff and sediment from erosion.

Still, with rumors and conspiracy theories continuing to circulate about the barrels’ contents, the Red Cliff band took up the cause in 2005 when it found it could use federal grants to do more study. Red Cliff holds federally authorized fishing rights over the waters of western Lake Superior.

Red Cliff officials have said they would like to retrieve more of the roughly 1,400 remaining barrels in coming years but so far have no source of funding to continue the effort.
 

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