What’s in Lake Superior barrels? After tests, Red Cliff band yet to sayNearly six months after the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Duluth-based contractor EMR brought up 70 barrels from the bottom of Lake Superior north of Duluth, the band has released no information about what was found inside.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Nearly six months after the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Duluth-based contractor EMR brought up 70 barrels from the bottom of Lake Superior north of Duluth, the band has released no information about what was found inside.
Tests on the Cold War-era relics indicate no “immediate threats or concerns to the public,’’ according to Red Cliff officials involved in the effort, who otherwise remained mum on details.
As of last week, the website developed by the band to update the public on the $3.3 million taxpayer-funded project had not been updated since Aug. 15. And the band hasn’t shared any information with state or federal officials, who say they are as much in the dark as the public.
“You are asking the same questions we want answers to,” said Kit Grayson of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s hazardous waste enforcement and compliance division. “So far, they haven’t responded to our requests for information.’’
Melanee Montano, director of the Red Cliff Environmental Program, said last week that her office has kept the appropriate state and federal officials informed on the barrel-testing effort. She promised that results of the laboratory analysis of the barrels’ contents will be made public later this month.
“We intend to have the press release go out late January to the public. We fully understand the interest and concern for all users of Lake Superior and intend on releasing all we know up to this point,’’ Montano said in an e-mail to the News Tribune.
But she added that it will take even longer to complete a “Remedial Investigation Report,’’ which will address the human health and environmental risks of whatever was found inside.
“At this time, what we know is that there are not any immediate threats or concerns to the public,’’ Montano said.
Two federal officials involved in the project, one from the Office of the Secretary of the Army and another from the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, also say they have no information from the band on what was recovered.
“The tribe and the tribe’s contractor have not submitted any reports,’’ said Kirk Engelbart of the Corps. “The tribe holds the conclusion and path forward.’’
Mike Fix, a U.S. Army environmental engineer attached to the Office of the Secretary of the Army, who is another lead contact with the tribe on the project, said he, too, “did not have the answers to those questions’’ on the contents or analysis of the barrels.
The tribe’s contractor in August told Wisconsin Public Radio that the point was to keep the government at arm’s length to add credibility to the results and help allay fears that the government was trying to cover up what was in the barrels.
The latest search
Not satisfied with previous assessments that the barrels of military waste dumped in Lake Superior a half-century ago contained harmless waste munitions parts, the band last summer used $3.3 million in federal money to raise and test more barrels.
Money for the effort has come from the Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program, run by the Department of Defense, which cleans up military messes left on reservations across the nation.
On Aug. 6, the band posted on its website an update saying “the project is proceeding safely and sediment, lake water, and barrel contents are being sampled daily and shipped for laboratory analysis. Laboratory results should be complete within a few weeks, and Red Cliff hopes to release some preliminary data and results in late 2012.’’
Project officials declined to allow any media coverage of the recovery effort.
“It was very puzzling to me that they would use public money for this project and then shut the public out, that there is no accountability,” said Ron Swenson, a PCA specialist in Brainerd who has followed the barrel saga since the last recovery and testing effort in the 1990s. “It also doesn’t seem likely that it would take this long to get any results.’’
If the latest barrels did contain anything considered hazardous waste under state and federal guidelines, the band and its contractor would have had to report it to officials in whichever state the barrels were unloaded, and they would be required to file a manifest on where the barrels or their contents would end up.
If the material was found to be hazardous, the barrels or their contents would have to go to a special hazardous waste disposal facility, such as a specially lined landfill or an approved incinerator.
So far, that notification hasn’t happened, and no one outside the project seems to know where the barrels and their contents are located or where they will end up.
Minnesota officials say they don’t know if that means the barrels contained nothing hazardous, were never actually brought to shore, or whether they just weren’t told that barrels were brought ashore in Minnesota.
Connie Antonuk, a natural resource manager for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said Red Cliff project officials contacted the DNR in May saying they would not bring any of the barrels or contents into Wisconsin, and thus there would be no hazardous waste entering Wisconsin jurisdiction.
“They said the off-loading would be in Minnesota,’’ she said.
Government efforts in the 1990s to raise, open and test the contents of several barrels found parts from grenade-like cluster bombs, scrap metal, ash, concrete chunks and garbage. Materials inside some of the eight barrels recovered contained some hazardous substances such as PCBs that officials say probably leached off the metals and ash.
But the 1990s barrels had such low levels of those materials that they were not considered hazardous waste. If the same thing was found this time, “that could be why they haven’t been in contact with us, because they wouldn’t have to if it was simply industrial waste,’’ Grayson noted. “But it still would be nice to know.”
Swenson said the testing and analysis of barrels from a 1994 recovery effort took just a few weeks and was immediately made public. Radiological tests took about six months, he noted.
In August, the band posted on the project website: “We have completed the 2012 Barrel Recovery Fieldwork. We are happy to relay that the work was both productive and safe. We greatly appreciate the public’s respect of the safety zone during operations. We also appreciate your patience thus far.
“No official results will be available at this time,” the posting said. “There is a process we are going through to determine exactly what we found and another process to assess the risks, if any, that are associated with what we found. It’s not our policy to speculate on what the analytical data may tell us before the facts are in. We are still a few weeks away from seeing our first lab data. We are all anxious to see the results, but we have to let the process take its course. Thanks to all for your support!”
Montano did not respond to several News Tribune requests last week for more-detailed information on the contents of the barrels or an explanation of why information has not been released.
Red Cliff’s entry into the barrel saga started in 2005, when band officials said they adopted the project as a way to attract federal military cleanup funds 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.
Red Cliff initially received two federal grants totaling $210,000 in 2006 and 2007 to hire a private contractor to conduct a review of historical documents, including military papers and old newspaper clippings. Despite persistent rumors that the barrels contain hazardous or even radioactive waste, the results of that document study by EMR, released in 2008, failed to find any new information on what is inside the barrels or if there are more barrels than previously reported.