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There's Still No Clarity on Toxic Waste Dump in Lake Superior

Half a century after barrels were dumped at 16 or more sites, we're waiting for answers about safety and accountability.

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 at the UPS Store on Arrowhead Road in Duluth for less than the cost of dinner out. It's a good read if your stomach can handle official graft, military contractor fraud, mobster-like "cement shoe treatment" of industrial trash, and bureaucratic dismissals of precautionary alarms.

The 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 disclosed, why the contents of the barrels have 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 barrels investigation and oversight unit once said.

The wastes came from the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant, Minnesota's largest Superfund site, which at the time was run by Honeywell.

Between 1957 and 1962, barrels containing benzene, PCBs, lead, cadmium, barium, hexavalent chromium and, most likely, radioactive materials were rolled off barges into the lake at 16 or more places along the North Shore. One of the seven identified dumps is within a mile of the Duluth-Superior drinking-water intake line. Three of the dump sites -- including the water-intake site and another said by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to be 75 square miles in size -- are federally designated Superfund sites.

In February, state Rep. Mike Jaros of Duluth wrote to the congressional delegations of Minnesota and Wisconsin urging that sediment testing be conducted prior to any removal of the aging barrels. In March, the Save Lake Superior Association resolved unanimously to urge that all these barrels be removed and safely sent to a hazardous-waste containment site.

This would be a prudent thing to do -- unless the barrels are weakened, broken 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 MPCA's Swenson. This "think about it later" approach raises more questions than it answers. As Swenson said in 1991, "What this means in the long term for public health, for the lake's ecosystem ... we still haven't determined." This April, Carl Herbrandson of the Minnesota Department of Health reported to Duluth researcher Dan Conley that the department 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 is not due until September, but the Army already reached its own conclusions. In 1990, the Corps' Ken Gardner told 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" in the barrels.


The Corps told the MPCA in 1976 that there were only seven dump sites. However, Bob Cross of the agency's spills unit told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1992 that a Corps supervisor had said that there were at least 16 sites.

In February 1995, Herb Bergson -- then mayor of Superior, now mayor of Duluth -- threatened to sue the Corps, the MPCA and Honeywell over a cleanup. No lawsuit ever materialized. Today, only the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Rep. Jaros appear committed enough to confront the 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 and see that the Great Lakes are protected from the cancer-causing materials in their barrels. To ensure public safety, the responsible parties should be required:

  • To fund an independent scientific confirmation of the presence or absence of radioactive materials in the barrels, to identify and characterize the specific contents and to publicly identify their locations.
  • To pay for an investigation into the state of the barrels' decay and the contamination, if any, of surrounding sediment.
  • To fund a remediation program that does not threaten to contaminate drinking water sources -- even if this means extending the water-intake point away from the barrels.

It's time for answers.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John LaForge

John LaForge

John LaForge is Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and is co-editor with Arianne Peterson of Nuclear Heartland, Revised: A Guide to the 450 Land-Based Missiles of the United States.

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