Barrel Dump Scandal
Murky As Ever
By John LaForge
A lot has been written about the 1,448-plus barrels of toxic and probably radioactive wastes that were dumped into Lake Superior by the U.S. Army (Corps of Engineers).
You can get a very good, 100-page compilation of news accounts and analysis in Duluth for less than the cost of dinner and a movie. It’s a good read if your stomach can handle official graft, military contractor fraud, nighttime mobster-like “cement shoe treatment” of deadly industrial trash, and blunt bureaucratic dismissals of precautionary alarms.
The general public might want to know why no agency, corporation or individual has ever been held accountable for the illegal dumping; why the full extent of the dumping has never been detailed; why the contents of the barrels has never been fully made known; and why “the mystery of radioactive waste is still out there,” as Ron Swenson, of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA’s) barrels investigation and oversight unit once said.
The wastes came from the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP), Minnesota’s largest Superfund site, which at the time was run by Honeywell, Corp.
For four years, between 1959 and 1962, barrels containing benzene, PCBs, lead, cadmium, barium, hexavalent chromium and most likely radioactive materials were rolled off barges into the lake at spots all along the north shore. One of the seven acknowledged dump sites (there are more) is within a mile of Duluth-Superior drinking water intake — just northeast of Brighton Beach. Three of the dump sites, including the water intake site, and another declared to encompass 75 square miles, are federally designated Superfund Sites (see: http://cqs.com/super_mn.htm, p.3 of 12).
In February, State Representative Mike Jaros wrote to the U.S. Senate and House urging that sediment testing be conducted prior to any moving of the aging barrels. In March the Save Lake Superior Association resolved unanimously to urge that all these barrels be removed and safely shipped to a hazardous waste containment site.
This would be a prudent thing to do — unless the 45-year-old barrels are weakened, broken open or leaking. After exhuming only nine barrels in 1990, the agencies responsible for protecting the environment dismissed the threat posed by the chemicals. ”We don’t believe there’s any short-term threat to human health,” said Ron Swenson of the MPCA.
This “think about it later” rationale for ignoring the threat raises more questions than it answers. As the MPCA’s Ron Swenson admitted in 1991, “What this means in the long term for public health, for the lake’s ecosystem … we still haven’t determined.” On April 16, Carl Herbrandson of the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) reported to researcher Dan Conley that the MDH had “decided to write a health consultation about what we know related to the barrels in Lake Superior and any potential health concerns.”
This report has yet to be issued, but the Army has already reached its own conclusions. In 1990, Corps spokesman Ken Gardner had the nerve to say to the Duluth News Tribune, “I’m sure if you got a few feet away from the barrels you wouldn’t find any traces of any of the chemicals … there is no public health threat.”
The Corps might be “sure,” but it appears to have lied about the barrels more than once. It first said there was nothing dangerous in them. It even produced several affidavits from former workers who swore they put “metal shavings” into the barrels.
The Corps told the MPCA in 1976 that there were only seven dump sites. However, Bob Cross of the MPCA’s spills unit told the St. Paul Pioneer in 1992 that a Corps supervisor had said that there were at least 16 dump sites.
On January 18, 1995 then Superior, now Duluth, Mayor Herb Bergson threatened to sue the Corps, the MPCA and Honeywell over a cleanup. No law suit ever materialized. Today, only the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Mike Jaros appear committed enough to protecting the drinking water to confront the barrel issue directly. Red Cliff is pursuing removal of some barrels under its own authority as a sovereign nation.
The Army, Honeywell, the EPA, and the MPCA must be compelled do their legal duty. They must see to it that the water is protected from the cancer-causing materials in their degrading barrels.
To insure public and environmental safety, the responsible parties must be required to: 1) fund an independent scientific confirmation of the presence or absence of radioactive materials in the barrels, to identify and characterize the specific contents of the barrels, and to publicly identify their locations, 2) fund an investigation into the state of the barrels’ decay and the contamination, if any, of surrounding sediment, and 3) fund a barrel dump remediation program that does not threaten to contaminate drinking water sources – even if this means extending the water intake point away from the barrels.
Mayor Bergson complained in 1995 that, “The contents of at least 1,448 barrels are still unknown to the public,” and that “The location of many of the barrels is still unknown.”
Twelve years later, it’s about time for answers.
Lake Superior Barrel Dump Radiation:
“Cover Up” Allegation Made By Submarine Captain On its April 12, 1995 broadcast, KBJR TelevisionChannel 6 News (Duluth, Minnesota), interviewed Captain Harold Maynard, the submarine operator who went down to investigate one of the dump sites with his K-350 submersible, its mechanical arm, lights and communication system. To this day, Capt. Maynard alleges a “cover up” of the presence of radiation in the barrel site he examined. News Anchors Dave Jensch and Michelle Lee introduced the subject of the barrels and reporter (now News Director) Barbara Reyelts questioned Capt. Maynard. Surface tender ship operator Mike Stich of Hazard Control (Now All Safe) has corroborated Capt. Maynard’s statements. Capt. Maynard (Ret.) spoke with Nukewatch from his home in New York on May 9, 2008. He said that from inside his submarine, a Corps of Engineers’ Geiger counter registered radiation near one barrel, that the tether securing his sub to a surface ship was contaminated and made the Corps’ Geiger counter click, that the Corps of Engineers’ Bob Dempsey “has been denying that ever since,” and that Mr. Dempsey would not allow him to return with his sub to same place to verify his reading.
Transcript of KBJR-TV newscast, April 12, 1995:
News Anchor MICHELLE LEE: Did the Army Corps of Engineers ignore and cover-up findings of radioactivity in the Lake Superior mystery barrels?
News Anchor DAVE JENSCH: Environmentalists say “Yes,” and State and federal officials say “No.” The submarine captain who first took the readings says the whole thing has become a big cover-up.
LEE: Channel 6 News tracked him down in New York and Barbara Reyelts brings us his story.
Reporter BARBARA REYELTS: It was October 15, 1990. The Army Corps of Engineers had hired Harold Maynard and his submarine to probe the bottom of Lake Superior for barrels. From his home in New York, Captain Maynard tells us [that] as a precaution on that dive, he took onboard a Geiger counter provided by the Corps of Engineers.
MAYNARD: … as I turned toward the barrel, about thirty feet off the bottom, I got a nuclear Geiger counter went off, started clickin’. I turned towards the barrel and when I got almost to the barrel it went off again. It was clickin’ again; low level.
REYELTS: When Maynard resurfaced, Corps officials went over his sub with a Geiger counter. Maynard said it went off as it moved over the line that tethered the sub to surface craft.
MAYNARD: When he got near that tether with that Geiger counter, it took off. It went right up the line. You could hear it rattling, click, click, click, click, click.
REYELTS: Jack [Bob] Dempsey of the Army Corps went back down with Captain Maynard to read the levels himself. In a telephone interview, he tells us:
DEMPSEY: We anchored ourselves as close to the same spot as possible for a good hour … But we could never repeat Mr. Maynard’s readings.
REYELTS: But Maynard says the Corps refused to go back to the spot where the radioactivity was detected.
MAYNARD: The nuclear readings that I got, the low-level ones, were in the south of this barrel field. They wouldn’t let me go back there again. They kept me to the north and to the east.
CHUCK WILLIAMS, (then director of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency): Uh, as far, uh, as, uh, these stories, you know, I started to get really tired of it.
REYELTS: Chuck Williams, Director of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, admits they got a radioactive reading, but says the whole thing is being blown out of proportion.
WILLIAM S: I think that he, uh, yah, is mistaken. And if he’s willing step forward and, uh, umm, uh, and show us the documentation, uh, we’ll certainly take a look at it. But I don’t think he can do that.
REYELTS: Maynard says that he has done it. He says he signed a sworn affidavit saying that he encountered radioactive levels while scanning the mystery barrels. Now, he says the whole thing is making him mad.
MAYNARD: When it [the report] came back and said that the Corps had denied any reading, [that] really upset me, ‘cause now one of us is a liar, and I got no reason to lie.
REYELTS: Duluth environmentalists brought the issue before the city council this week, and at the upcoming agenda session councilors will take a deeper look. In Duluth, Barbara Reyelts, Channel 6 News.
MICHELLE LEE: It’s estimated it would cost 12 million dollars to bring up the remaining fourteen-hundred-plus barrels.
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