Saturday, June 7, 2008

The barrels at the bottom of Lake Superior

Around the time I was entering the first grade, the US Army was developing a new weapon at Honeywell in Minneapolis called the cluster bomb. During that period of the Cold War we were pretty sure that commie spies were lurking around every corner and Kruschchev's shoe pounding and promise to 'bury us' didn't do much to reassure the populace. I still remember practicing 'air raid drills' and being reprimanded for pointing out that the air raid drills were suspiciously similar to the tornado drills; get under your desk, place your head between your legs and, as the cynics said, kiss your ass goodbye. In any event, parts, chemicals, prototypes, and other detritus of cluster bomb development needed to be disposed of. You couldn't really bury it because Boris Badenov and Natasha might find it and dig it up. So clever army intelligence experts decided to load all the crap into 55 gallon drums and dump it into Lake Superior, some of it within a mile of the intake pipe for the Duluth water supply. Between 1959 and 1962 they dumped around 1500 barrels into the lake and since then there have been a number of efforts to find out just exactly what was in them and whether the contents posed a health hazard when the inevitiable leaking began to occur. The Minnesota Dept of Health reviewed all the available data and concluded, in a report issued this spring, that their is no public health risk from the barrels.

Other folks are not so sure. The Red Cliff tribe of Ojibwe, the folks who kindly let us use the launch site at their marina to head off to the Apostles, hired a consultant to do a historical review of documents on the barrels and plan to secure more funding to identify specific barrel dumping sites in 2009 and to raise and recover several barrels by 2010. This will be tough since the barrels are likely very corroded and deep water diving in Lake Superior is an extremely dicey endeavor. The Save Lake Superior Association is also trying to get some answers on the issue.

Shortly after I moved to the Twin Cities in the late '70's, we were informed that our water supply in New Brighton and St Anthony was contaminated. While this fostered biblical era conversation and camaraderie with my neighbors while drawing water at the public artesian well in Wirth Park, it was definitely not a good thing. Who caused the contamination you ask? Coincidentally enough, the Twin Cities Army Ammunition plant in Arden Hills which is now a Superfund site. These would be the same folks that filled the barrels and hauled them up to Lake Superior nearly 50 years ago. What reason would there be to think that these barrels, now on the bottom of Lake Superior would have chlorinated solvents, PCB's, lead, explosives, VOC's or any of the other nasty chemicals found on the Superfund site in them? My good friend, Best Man, and fellow micro brewed beer fan, TheWoodMan, flew Huey helicopters in Vietnam. Some of the many missions they flew involved spraying the defoliant Agent Orange along the Ho Chi Minh trail. He was in 'Nam when the chemical was banned and could not help but notice that the 'new and safe' defoliant seemed to be in the exact same barrels as the Agent Orange, which appeared to have been stenciled over with the new chemicals name. Would the Army Munitions and Chemical Command endorse such a thing? Would they dump barrels of hazardous chemicals into the largest, cleanest freshwater lake on the planet and then try to obscure the fact? And finally, should we believe them and the MPCA when they tell us all is well, even though they haven't even located most of the barrels or the records concerning them? I will let blog readers be the judge of that. All I can say is good luck to the Red Cliff tribe, the Save Lake Superior Association, and other interested parties that are working on the issue. I will most definitely be keeping track of the efforts on this blog.


Kentar1948 said...

After over 3.3 million liters/pounds of Agent Orange and Agent White being sprayed at CFB Gagetown, New Brunswick, Canada and Ottawa (the Canadian Government) not only still not owning up to our 50/50 mix of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T being Agent Orange and what they replaced it with being Agent White along with intermitted Purple, Blue, Green and all kinds of other so called friendly fire accidents waiting to happen... I don't believe that there is a Veteran left in Canada who would believe a single word that comes out of the mouths of any Government.

Canada, if you follow a time frame was testing Agent Orange a full 5 years before the US began using it in Vietnam, followed by the rest of the Rainbow Chemicals and we continued to spray these toxically contaminated chemicals well into the 80's long after the US had decided them too dangerous for use wile at war.

Cpl. Kenneth H. Young CD (Ret'd).I hope but without much conviction, that the leftover rainbow Chemicals were disposed of properly and not just cheaply and quickly as is so often the case when it comes to unwanted military ordinances but to be honest I doubt that the US or Canadian governments had enough foresight to do so.

Cpl. Kenneth H. Young CD (Ret'd).

Silbs said...

I remember those air raid drills. I know, now, that the idea of getting down and putting our heads between our legs was so we could kiss our behinds good bye.