Knife River site remains a mystery in barrel storyFrom 1958 to 1962, nearly 1,500 barrels were dumped into Lake Superior between the Lester and Knife rivers. The extraction of the U.S. Army barrels with unknown contents began Monday in Lake Superior.
By: From Mike Simonson, WPR and LaReesa Sandretsky, Lake County News Chronicle
The extraction of U.S. Army barrels with unknown contents began Monday in Lake Superior.
From 1958 to 1962, nearly 1,500 barrels were dumped into Lake Superior between the Lester and Knife rivers. Because these spots are in an area ceded by northern Wisconsin Ojibwe tribes to the U.S. government, the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is overseeing removal of the drums.
The tribe received a grant from the Department of Defense as part of a federal program to clean up dump sites near or on reservation lands. The grant funding will pay for the project.
Federal officials have said the barrels contain concrete and scrap munitions parts that pose no danger to the environment. But environmental and American Indian activists have speculated for decades that the barrels may contain toxic or radioactive materials.
Coast Guard Marine Safety Officer Judson Coleman told Wisconsin Public Radio that they’re setting up a safety zone as a precaution.
“I know that there is some public interest surrounding this project,” Coleman said. Boaters are being kept away “in order for this project vessel to do its work and recover the barrels and do their testing and that sort of thing without being interrupted.”
Jennifer Thiemann, barrel removal project manager with the environmental engineering firm EMR, said that although the barrels contain parts of weapons made during the Cold War, she doesn’t think they’ll be dangerous.
“We don’t believe we will find live ammunition, but because the remote possibility exists, we have to take safety precautions and treat them as potentially live,” she said.
The first barrel was pulled up by a fisherman in 1968, and since that time the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers have tested the contents of the barrel and the waters near the dumpsite.
Government efforts to find and open several barrels in the 1990s found parts from grenade-like cluster bombs, scrap metal, ash, concrete and garbage. Water inside some of the eight recovered barrels contained levels of several hazardous substances such as PCBs that officials said probably leached off the metals and ash.
The MPCA, backed by the EPA and the Corps, concluded in 1994 and 1995 that “the barrels did not represent a threat to human health or the environment.”
In 2006, Red Cliff went through U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Honeywell munitions records and said chemicals ranging from PCBs to mercury, lead or uranium could be in the barrels.
Red Cliff tribal officials say they won’t comment on the barrel recovery project until it’s finished. Depending on the weather, that should be in two weeks.
According the Federal Register, the August extraction mission will operate between Stony Point and Brighton Beach. A regional group says another location further north has been left out.
“At least 496 of the barrels were dumped at Knife River … but they are being ignored,” says a petition by Nukewatch, an environmental watchdog group based in Luck, Wisconsin.
According to Ron Swenson, supervisor at the MPCA, no barrels have officially been found at the Knife River site. When searching for barrels, they came across sonar readings that indicated their presence but could not confirm them.
“There would have to be a lot more work to [dismiss] or confirm it as a dump site. It’s still a puzzle,” Swenson said.
Because no barrels were found, the site has never been tested for radiation or other hazardous chemicals. Nukewatch has at least one theory of why barrels aren’t showing at the suspected dump site.
“There were corrosive materials that may have corroded the barrels so that they’ve decayed into a debris field,” said John LaForge of Nukewatch. He has been following the barrel saga for years.
Swenson wouldn’t comment on this hypothesis, but did say the barrels they’ve found at other dump sites were in various stages of decay and some were almost completely buried in sediment.
“[Perhaps] the Army Corps is pressuring the Red Cliff Band to ignore the Knife River barrel dump site,” the Nukewatch petition says.
The petition urges the Army Corps of Engineers to test the Knife River site, and LaForge said they’d like to see the contents from the barrels the Red Cliff band and EMR pull from the water sent to two different labs for testing.