Barrels dumped in lake get new assessmentThe Department of Defense is funding its most expensive munitions dump clean-up on American Indian territory — along the North Shore of Lake Superior, an area ceded by northern Wisconsin tribes to the U.S. government in the 19th century.
By: Mike Simonson, Wisconsin Public Radio
The Department of Defense is funding its most expensive munitions dump cleanup on American Indian territory — along the North Shore of Lake Superior, an area ceded by northern Wisconsin tribes to the U.S. government in the 19th century.
Almost 1,500 barrels with secret ammunition parts were dumped in Lake Superior near Duluth between 1959 and 1962. Now, a recovery team that deals with dangerous materials will remove 70 of those drums this summer. Officials from the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa announced the project last week.
With $3.3 million from a Department of Defense program called the Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program, the Red Cliff Band has hired Environmental Management Resources Inc. of Duluth, which is subcontracting with Veolia Environmental Services of Neenah, Wis., to recover the barrels.
After removing the 55-gallon drums, samples will be sent to Spectrum Analytical of Tampa, Fla., which has no ties to the Department of Defense, EMR project manager Jennifer Thiemann said.
“We’re actually testing them for everything under the sun,” she said. “We’re testing them for radioactivity (and) a full slate of chemicals, volatiles, heavy metals. Through those analyses we’ll actually have some real data. To date, we haven’t seen real definitive data, and we’re going to have that at the end of this summer.”
Nine barrels were raised and tested by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 1990 and 1994, Thiemann said. From that, the MPCA concluded in a later report that the barrels represent no apparent health risk.
Thiemann said testing nine out of almost 1,500 barrels isn’t enough to draw any conclusions.
“The investigations that have been done to date are not scientifically adequate to determine there are no risks associated with the barrels,” she said. “So that’s our goal with the investigation this summer — to get us a sensible set of data to determine if there are any human health or ecological risks.”
EMR conducted side-sonar scans of dump sites along the Talmadge, Knife and Sucker Rivers in 2008, and found 591 “high-probability targets.” A probable target is considered one or more barrels. Testing 70 of those barrels is 11 percent of the total, making it a good scientific sampling, Thiemann said.
Red Cliff Tribal Chairwoman Rose Gurnoe-Soulier said $2.5 million of the $3.3 million will be used to raise the barrels. It’s the most expensive and technologically difficult project ever undertaken by this Defense Department program.
“It’s groundbreaking stuff,” Gurnoe-Soulier said. “But it took us, our staff time, our professional time, rather than DoD itself, moving forward to do it.”
She said the testing is a matter of duty and survival for one of the state’s poorest tribes.
“The lake is very important to us. The water is very important. And we’re very concerned about the federal government’s trust responsibility to make sure that they ensure that (we can exercise) our treaty rights. … We’re going to continue to be there until we find out what’s in those barrels.”
Veolia Environmental will use a camera-operated underwater robotic vehicle to lift the barrels from 100 to 400 feet of water.
Red Cliff officials won’t say when the barrels will be recovered this summer because they don’t want boaters in the area. Thiemann said federal safety regulations will require that nonessential people be kept a minimum of 621 feet from where they’ll be working. That zone will be enforced by the Coast Guard.
They expect it will take Veolia no more than 15 consecutive days to raise all 70 drums.
The plan is to raise 33 barrels from the Talmadge River dump site, 28 from the Sucker River and nine from the Lester River site.
The closest dump site is two miles from Duluth’s water intake.