Lake Superior Barrels: Red Cliff’s Investigation


For three years in a row, the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has announced its intention to recover 70 of the 1,457 barrels of Honeywell corporation waste secretly dumped into Lake Superior along the North Shore by the Army Corps of Engineers in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Technical problems, funding delays and complaints by the Army Corps caused postponements.
An April 18 news release from the Band renews its pledge to do the retrieval this summer. The announcement says diplomatically that the drums “contain ammunition parts and general production line debris.”

Even the Minn. Pollution Control Agency admits it found “17 contaminants including metals, volatiles, semi-volatiles and polychlorinated biphenyls” in the barrels. ( HYPERLINK “”, p.3) And the Snooze Tribune reported that over a dozen toxins were found in nine barrels, among them benzene, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, acetone and barium. (“Barrels contain toxins,” Duluth News Tribune, Sept., 22, 1994)

Red Cliff plans to take barrels from dump sites near the Lester, Talmage and Sucker Rivers. Other well-documented dumps at Knife River, Knife Island, Shoreview Road and French River are not being targeted because an underwater search failed to positively identify barrels there. Researchers hired by the Band say that only a “debris field” appears in its images of these four areas. Official statements on the numbers of drums, dumping trips and dump sites are available in records — including official Corps of Engineers tug boat logs — maintained by the Army, the Minn. Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Duluth Public Library.
The Sept. 1993 Minnesota Pollution Control Agency “Fact Sheet” on the barrels says, “the Corps disposed of classified material seven times — a total of 1,457 drums.”
The Executive summary of the MPCA’s Jan. 23, 1985 “Preliminary Assessment, Duluth Superior Harbor Barrel Dump,” says: “Six dumping areas have been identified.”

The MPCA’s “Site Description and History” says “Available records indicate a total of 1,437 drums were disposed … in 6 different locations.”

The Department of the Army’s Environmental Hygiene Agency says in a June 30, 1977 letter, “this Agency … requested a separate evaluation of environmental hazard … of six dumps at the same site during the period, 1957-62.”

A June 28, 1985 Office Memorandum from John Pegors, the MPCA’s regional director in Duluth, says in part: “The first three dumps were made approximately three miles out from the Lester River mouth in the vicinity of the drinking water intake for the city of Duluth…. The fourth, fifth and sixth dumps were made at deeper depths in the vicinity of Knife Island near the mouth of the Knife River….”

The memo continues: “Barrel dump number 4, confirmed, was made at the 200 foot contour on Oct. 14, 1961, and barrel dumps 5 and 6 were made on June 25 and 26, 1962 …” But self-limited searches aren’t the only mystery.

In 1990, the U.S. EPA conducted a radiological survey of 24 barrels. Four of them, over 16%, were found emitting excess radiation. (“Final report of results from survey of drums in Lake Superior,” U.S. EPA, National Air and Radiation Environmental Laboratory, Nov. 27, 1990, pp. 3, 5 & 11) This final report by Health Physicist Mark Semler warned that his monitoring equipment was incapable of detecting alpha or beta radiation. Semler’s cover letter cautioned:
“Because the underwater probe is insensitive to the presence of alpha and/or beta radiation, no conclusions concerning the presence or absence of radionuclides which are pure alpha or beta emitters can be made. I would, therefore, recommend that as you open any recovered drums, you have available an alpha survey meter and a G-M survey meter with a thin window that is sensitive to beta radiation. I would also suggest that you provide, or require the contractor to provide, full face, air purifying respirators and overalls for all workers in the area as the concrete is removed. This will protect from the concrete dust which will be generated and allow for easy decontamination of workers should any radioactive or hazardous materials be present.”
Red Cliff’s investigators would do well to heed the EPA’s warning.
— John LaForge works for Nukewatch a nuclear watchdog and anti-war group in Wisconsin.