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John Myers, Duluth News Tribune, Published February 05 2013

MPCA investigate tribe's waste recovery effort

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is investigating how the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe handled barrels of Cold War military waste recovered last summer from Lake Superior.

The PCA’s Hazardous Waste Enforcement Division has an “open investigation” under way on how the barrels were brought to shore in Minnesota and transported through the state without proper permits or advance notification.

John Elling, director of the PCA division, said he would not comment on details of the investigation because it was under way.

“We’re still in the information-gathering stages,” Elling told the News Tribune on Monday. “We’re trying to make sure everything was done properly.”

Minnesota law allows the PCA to keep the information confidential if there is civil litigation or enforcement action pending.

In January, nearly six months after the barrel-recovery effort, PCA officials said they had no idea when or where any barrels were brought to shore, saying neither Red Cliff officials nor the band’s contractor, Duluth-based EMR, obtained proper permits or submitted manifests to land any hazardous material in the state or move it through Minnesota. PCA officials said they had no idea if, when or where any barrels came ashore on the Minnesota side of the bay.

The band also failed to provide information where any hazardous material would be disposed of, possibly in violation of state law.

The PCA attempted to obtain information from the band as early as 2010 and through 2012 but were told at one point the plan was to take any recovered barrels through Wisconsin. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials told the News Tribune last month that the band told them they were moving any recovered barrels through Minnesota and that there would be no Wisconsin DNR jurisdiction.

The PCA for weeks attempted to get information on the barrel-recovery effort without success. After a News Tribune story in early January raised questions on where the barrels' contents were landed, Red Cliff officials met with PCA officials. It apparently was after that meeting that the investigation began.

The barrel-recovery project is being monitored by the U.S. Defense Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There apparently is no Environmental Protection Agency involvement.

Red Cliff Band Environmental Program officials Friday confirmed for the first time that they had recovered 25 barrels in July and August as part of a $3.3 million federally funded project. The band said it found the same kind of munitions parts, ash, concrete and scrap metal in the barrels that was found in a similar effort in the 1990s, and the band issued a statement saying the barrels’ contents were of no immediate human or environmental threat. They said there was no sign of radioactivity.

The band also found small explosive devices in the mix with cluster bomb parts and said the presence of still-active explosives forced the recovery effort to be scaled back from the proposed 70 barrels to 25 so money could be saved to properly dispose of the contents.

The band said Friday it could be several more months before laboratory analysis of the barrels’ contents would be released. They also have promised an invitation-only news conference where questions on the recovery effort and barrel contents would be answered, although no date for that event has been released.

Melanee Montano, director of the Red Cliff Environmental Program, repeatedly has declined to answer any News Tribune questions on the barrel issue.

Between 1957 and 1962, an estimated 1,457 industrial steel drums were trucked from a Honeywell weapons plant in the Twin Cities to Duluth and secretly tossed off barges into Lake Superior. The 55-gallon barrels were dumped roughly along a line from the eastern Duluth city limits nearly to Two Harbors, from one mile to five miles off shore.

Since 1977, when the existence of the barrels first was confirmed by the military, several attempts were made to retrieve them and check their contents. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency spent more than $400,000 looking for and examining the barrels between 1990 and 1994.

A 1990 search recovered two barrels that contained grenade parts, concrete and a Honeywell coffee cup — but nothing highly toxic or dangerous. A 1993 PCA search using high-tech sonar and video equipment mapped hundreds of the barrels, along with crates of unused ammunition and even junked vehicles and other big chunks of trash in the area a few miles off the Duluth ship canal.

The most elaborate search occurred in 1994 when a U.S. Navy deep-water robotic submarine was used. That effort recovered seven more barrels containing scrap parts from hand grenades or cluster bombs and other military ordnance, along with garbage, ash and concrete.

Tests of the barrel contents also revealed trace amounts of 15 toxic chemicals — including PCBs, barium, lead, cadmium and benzene — in levels above drinking-water standards but which PCA officials said were too low to be considered an environmental or human health threat or even hazardous waste.

None of the chemicals were found in unusual levels in the nearby Duluth water supply intake. And PCB levels in lake trout have declined in recent years.

PCA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials eventually concluded that there was no need to search for or test more barrels, and that leaving the remaining barrels rusting under 200 feet of water posed no major health or environmental risk. Pollution officials have said their limited staff and money would be better spent on more pressing Great Lakes issues, such as invasive species, mercury contamination and polluted runoff and erosion runoff.

Red Cliff’s entry into the barrel saga started in 2005, when band officials said they adopted the project as a way to attract federal military cleanup money to the effort. Though Red Cliff is 50 miles from the nearest known barrel dump site, the band has treaty authority to be involved in environmental and natural resource management on the lake, including in Minnesota waters, where the barrels are located.