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EPA finds 18 barrels, some intact, in Oregon lake recovery effort

By ROB DAVIS | The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. | Published: June 15, 2019

PORTLAND, Oregon (Tribune News Service) — A remotely operated underwater vehicle identified 18 barrels at the bottom of Wallowa Lake Friday, including at least one bearing a label that says it contains one of the two defoliants used in Agent Orange.

An unspecified number were intact; others had rusted out.

A contractor for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was still assessing the drums late Friday, with divers working between 90 and 120 feet below the alpine lake's surface to conduct detailed visual and tactile inspections of the intact barrels.

State and federal officials said there is no evidence that the drums that are intact are currently leaking. The EPA and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality said in a joint news release that the drums' labels indicate they were produced for commercial use, not the military.

There's no way to know what happened to the contents of barrels that rusted out – or whether they were empty when they were put in the lake. Old barrels were often used as floats for docks and when weighed down as anchors.

Last August, recreational divers discovered barrels labeled as containing one of two defoliants – 2,4-D or 2,4,5-T. Combined, the two chemicals were once known as Agent Orange. The herbicide was used extensively in the Vietnam War and has been connected to numerous illnesses among veterans and civilians who were exposed.

Contrary to some national media reports, the agencies stressed that the barrels do not contain Agent Orange itself. Agent Orange, which was manufactured for military use, contained both 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T at high concentrations. The military blend was heavily contaminated with dioxin, which the EPA classifies as a probable human carcinogen.

Still, the commercial version of 2,4,5-T was also contaminated by dioxin, leading Dow Chemical to pull the chemical off the market in the early 1980s.

If conditions at Wallowa Lake allow, authorities could begin removing the highest priority drums Saturday.

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