Red Cliff officials vow to pursue sunken barrels issue

This article was written by Rick Olivio, who is a reporter with the Daily Press. Article was published on Friday, August 29th, 2014.

Red Cliff officials vow to pursue sunken barrels issue

As far as the Army Corps of Engineers is concerned, say environmental officials from the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, the presence of over a thousand 55-gallon barrels filled with materials from the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant that were dumped into Lake Superior from 1958 to 1962 is a dead letter issue.

That is something the Red Cliff Band would beg to differ with.

Tribal environmental officials say the Corps has directed, through it’s Program Manager for the Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program, (NALEMP) that the project to retrieve and analyze some 70 barrels of the dumped barrels would not follow the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) process mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

That action meant that no further testing of barrels or cleanup alternatives were to be accepted or allowed by the Corps.

The removal of the investigation from the CERCLA process mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency has caused considerable unease with tribal environmental officials.

The reason for the Corps taking the investigation out of that process are complex at best, and have much to do with the Byzantine nature of federal bureaucracy. Red Cliff Environmental Director Melonee Montano said Friday she feared that by taking the investigation out of the CERCLA process, the investigation results would be invalidated in any kind of federal court proceedings.

What concerns tribal NALEMP Manager Gary Defoe, Jr. is that materials found in the investigation conducted in 2012 came as a complete surprise to investigators. The barrels were found to have two distinct types of contents, a composite material consisting of three barrels with incinerated metals and 22 barrels containing intact munitions parts, identified as ejection cup assemblies for BLU-4 cluster bombs. The munitions were examined by explosives experts and were found to contain an active ejection charge of M5 propellant, a double-base smokeless powder containing nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose, commonly used in a variety of military munitions. Because the devices were classified as explosive devices, additional permits had to be obtained before they could be moved. This resulted in only 25 barrels being raised instead of the 70 barrels that had been hoped for. Another reason for halting the lifting was the rising cost of disposing of the explosive materials.

Ironically, because the discovery of the bomblet components had not been anticipated, no tests were carried out on the devices. Since no remedial actions were to be considered by the Corps, the remedial report was truncated into two reports, an investigative report and a final results and summary report, said Defoe.

The Investigative report was filed with the Corps in July, while the final results and summary report is due to be completed in mid December.

Montano said the tribe expected comments back on the investigative report from the Army Corps in a week or so.

“After that we will go from there,” said Defoe. “We hope to get more testing done in the future, for the explosives, since that portion of the components for the BLU-4 was never tested, and we would still like to reach our goal of 70 barrels which we did not achieve, due to the amount of M-5 propellant we found on the barge when we pulled up the barrels in 2012.”

Defoe said his investigations of the propellant determined that it was a potential carcinogen.

“If they get into the fish or the little critters on the bottom — we don’t know. That’s why we would like to get it tested.”

Montano said the discovery of the BLU-4 components stunned investigators.

“We were led to believe that they were melted down and everything, that’s why it was such a shock when we removed as many as we did. 22 out of the 25 barrels contained these components.”

One fear that has apparently been put to rest is the question of whether the barrels had any radioactive material — at least in material recovered to date.

“We found none of that in just what we have come across so far, but we can’t say that won’t happen in the future,” said Montano.

Montano said because the tribe was not able to raise the 70 barrels they had originally hoped for, their plan, once the summary report is completed is to apply for additional money to go back and do more retrievals, to get up to the 70 barrel goal.

“Then at least we can have our good sample size,” she said. “And also to be able to test the explosive specifically.

Montano said it has not yet been determined of the ultimate goal would be to remove all of the approximately 1,500 barrels that were dumped into the lake.

“It depends on what we find when we get up to the 70 barrels, what everything shows.”

Montano said only when the tribe has reached a sample size of about 70 barrels would there be enough data available to make a decision as to whether it would be better to raise the barrels or leave them at the bottom of the lake.

Whatever the outcome of those determinations will be, Montano said it was vital to continue the work of studying the barrels remaining at the bottom of the lake.

“That is why we are still moving forward,” she said. “We want to understand fully what the impacts are. To us it’s not closed. The tribe has a different viewpoint. We rely heavily on the lake for fishing. It is within our ceded territory. It is our sustenance and survival. For us, being part of our natural resources it is of high importance to understand the impacts to our members, to others who aren’t even our members, people in general.”

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2 comments on “Red Cliff officials vow to pursue sunken barrels issue

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