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Aging explosives dumped back into Lake Superior

2:03 PM, Mar. 8, 2013  |  Comments
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RED CLIFF - Some 22 barrels of military ammunition that were dumped into Lake Superior decades ago and recovered last year have been re-submerged while a local tribe and cleanup workers seek a federal waiver to bring them ashore.

Last summer the barrels were raised from the bottom of the lake, where they have sat since being secretly dumped off barges in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They were found to contain thousands of tiny explosive devices, and even though each is only as potent as a firecracker, officials say they are worried that a single detonation could set off a chain reaction.

However, the barrels can't be brought ashore because there are no federally approved facilities to receive explosives on the Great Lakes. So the contractor who retrieved them and a local tribe involved in the cleanup efforts were left with no choice but to sink the ordnance.

The detonators were taken out of their 55-gallon drums, placed into six bright new orange containers and dumped off the shores of Duluth, with the site marked by GPS. The Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and cleanup contractor EMR hope to get federal waivers to retrieve the containers by the spring or summer.

Last month, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency confirmed it was investigating whether the tribe or EMR had brought any of the barrels ashore and transported them through Minnesota without proper permits or advance notification. Tribal officials and EMR on Thursday gave their first public explanation of what happened, saying it recovered 25 barrels but only transported three barrels that were below the thresholds for hazardous material.

"We didn't transport anything that would have been regulated," said Julie Kloss Molina, a project manager for Duluth-based EMR. "We didn't transport anything within Minnesota or Wisconsin."

Those materials were taken by boat to a facility on Lake Huron in Cheboygan, Mich., she said.

The $3.3 million cleanup project was funded by a Department of Defense program aimed at cleaning up old military messes left behind on Indian lands. It's only the second time the program sought to clean up military waste that was underwater.

There are still another 1,400 barrels in the lake. EMR will study whether those barrels should be raised to protect human and environmental health or whether they should be allowed to rust away and sink into the sediment if moving them might cause more ecological damage.

That report is expected by September.

Between 1957 and 1962, the steel drums were trucked from a weapons plant in the Twin Cities to Duluth and secretly tossed off barges into Lake Superior.

Several efforts have been made to retrieve them since the military confirmed their existence in 1977. While tests on some barrels turned up traces of toxic chemicals, MPCA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials concluded that leaving the remaining barrels under 200 feet of water posed no major risk.

The Red Cliff band became involved in 2005, when tribal officials said they adopted the project as a way to attract federal military cleanup money. Though the Red Cliff Reservation is 50 miles from the nearest known dump site, the band has treaty authority to be involved in environmental and natural resource management on Lake Superior.

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