History: Hundreds of barrels dumped by weapons plantBetween 1957 and 1962, an estimated 1,457 industrial steel drums were trucked from a Honeywell weapons plant in the Twin Cities to Duluth and secretly dumped off barges into Lake Superior.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Between 1957 and 1962, an estimated 1,457 industrial steel drums were trucked from a Honeywell weapons plant in the Twin Cities to Duluth and secretly dumped off barges into Lake Superior. The dumped 55-gallon barrels formed a line from the eastern Duluth city limits nearly to Two Harbors, from a mile to five miles off shore.
What was in the barrels? Theories developed over the years, ranging from radioactive nuclear waste to a purple, toxic ooze to live explosives.
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 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 PCA 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 recent and elaborate search occurred in 1994 when a U.S. Navy deep-water robotic submarine was used. That effort recovered seven more barrels containing scrap parts from hand grenades or 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.
In November 1994, News Tribune stories cited Nuclear Regulatory Commission and PCA documents that raised questions about the possible mingling of Honeywell and 3M radioactive waste in some of the barrels that ended up in Lake Superior. Both companies handled radioactive materials at the same time at the same munitions plant. And some low-level radioactive waste from the plant was illegally buried near Kerrick in Pine County at the same time.
Underwater testing devices used by the EPA in 1995, however, showed no sign of elevated radioactivity around the underwater barrels, and no evidence had turned up in any of the barrels recovered up to that point.
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 invasive species, mercury contamination and polluted runoff and erosion runoff.
Still, the barrels issue has lingered, especially among some parts of the Twin Ports environmental community who allege the military is covering up the existence of dangerous barrel contents and shirking its duty to remove them from the lake. Some groups have called for more sampling from more piles of barrels, saying testing just nine or even 79 of 1,457 barrels isn’t enough to declare the entire number harmless.