Lake Superior's deep, dark secrets
Posted November 4, 2005
At dawn, an orange sky paints the horizon of the greatest
of the Great Lakes - Lake Superior.
In such a setting, mere words struggle to capture Superior's
majesty and mystery. Perhaps Kitchi Gummi, Native American
for great water, best conveys Superior's depths.Advertisement
And perhaps those who've roughed lifetimes trolling Superior's
bounty can best tell its deepest, darkest mysteries.
As he joins employees filleting the latest catch on a
brisk September morning, Dean Halverson talks about the
time he's spent on the waters of this great lake.
"Pretty much all my life since I was a kid,"
he said, recalling a blue-finned catch. "We brought
in a missile one time."
Halverson describes it as "about three times the
length of a fish."
From his dock near Bayfield, Wisconsin, Halverson thinks
back 30 years, his mind's eye traveling to the waters
around the neighboring Apostle Islands. There, he was
on board a boat that hauled up a mystery missile. After
catching it, they released it.
"Everybody on the boat actually was nervous, cause
we had never seen anything like that before," Halvorson
said. But a decade later he saw another one hauled in
to the dock by another fisherman. "It was lying on
the roof of the boat, up on the left hand side there."
That other fisherman was Jack Evanow. He remembers how
another fisherman, who happened to also be a retired military
man, reacted when the missile was brought onto the dock.
Evanow said, "He said it was alive. Whether he was
right or not, I don't know." But he does know he
pulled in another missile that same year.
Both were netted in the waters around the Bayfield peninsula.
"It looked like something that came off of a plane,"
Retired fisherman Jim Erickson said he snagged a dummy
missile while fishing with his son, Fred, who remembers
"I thought it was the neatest thing ever,"
Erickson also reeled in a shell. Both catches came in
the mid 1980s, both around the Apostle Islands.
Those three fishermen either returned their catches to
the lake or to the military. But how did they get there
in the first place?
All of those mysterious catches were hauled from the
waters around the Bayfield Peninsula and the Apostle Islands.
It just so happens that a huge military exercise area
is located just to the east in Lake Superior. It's noted
on government maps.
"They used to announce it. They'd let us know when
they were going to fly over - target practicing out in
the big lake," Erickson said.
"Certainly convinces me that there's something there
to be checked out," said Ron Swenson, a supervisor
with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, or MPCA.
He's fished before to uncover other mysteries hidden in
the lake. Swenson said, "The military has used Lake
Superior as a place to dispose of various kinds of munitions
over the years."
The trail begins in Duluth where on mild days you can
watch the big ships come and go. Sixty years ago this
fall, a newspaper captured a photo of boxes and boxes
waiting to take a dive into Lake Superior's depths. Swenson
said, "The army hauled some 20 million rounds or
600 tons of .50 caliber projectiles and dumped them in
A War Department letter notes the 1945 dumping saved
$20,000. The projectiles were explosive tipped and contained
magnesium. They were dropped somewhere near the Duluth
harbor. Swenson wonders if the bullets are leached out
by now, or if they are still fully encapsulated? "I
don't know," he said.
Looking across the sun-splashed lake just a few miles
up the shore from Duluth, Swenson sees a boat resting
in the water, and can shed significantly more light on
another mystery looming on the lake bottom. It's known
as the Lake Superior Classified Barrel Disposal Site -
perhaps one of the lake's most infamous military dump
According to Swenson, it's a 45 square mile area along
Superior's north shore near Duluth. In those waters between
1959 and 1962, the Corps of Engineers, on behalf of the
U.S. Army, dumped more than 1,400 barrels into the lake.
It was legal back then.
Those barrels mostly came from Twin Cities Army Ammunition
Plant, known as TCAAP, which is located in the northern
Twin Cities metro area.
Sitting next to a box of files at the MPCA headquarters
in downtown Saint Paul, Swenson recalls, "They're
concern was more on national security, and economical
ways to dispose of it (classified material)."
Swenson, who was project leader of the barrel investigation,
said the military wanted to hide the design of a timing
mechanism, which according to the MPCA files was a crucial
part in the design of classified anti-personnel grenades.
The records point to multiple disposal attempts before
settling on Superior. A September, 1959 military memo
notes, "this type of service had been done before."
"Somebody remembered hey, back in '45, we took out
600 tons of bullets," Swenson said.
The barrels weren't forgotten, however. Public pressure
grew. In fact, a congressman wrote in 1976 that the dumping
project "appears to represent an incredible lack
of good judgment."
Eventually, in the 1990s, crews brought up nine barrels.
Swenson said they contained what was expected, including
timing parts, ash, scrap and slag (melted parts). But
Swenson admits, "We've always been criticized for
only bringing up nine barrels."
Dave Anderson is a Michigan-based natural resources consultant.
He has seen and studied barrel-related files. "If
we sample nine times and they're not homogenous, it is
foolish to suggest we understand what's in 1,437 of them,"
Indeed, the MPCA barrel file does raise some questions
about the contents. For instance, handwriting on a 1976
EPA letter said, "during loading, a barrel broke
open. When he (worker) reached down to pick up the material,
(he was) ordered not to (and a) stranger with gloves did
clean it up."
And an MPCA site history said a person claiming to be
a barge worker recalled "some barrels floated, were
punctured with fire axes and sometimes a purple colored
substance oozed out (of them)."
Anderson responds, "We know it would be unprofessional
at best to suggest that they are all grenade parts because
obviously they are not."
Ultimately, Minnesota's analysis of seven barrels found
multiple contaminants exceeding allowable limits at the
time including arsenic, barium, benzene, cadmium, lead
and PCB's. The latter was 14,000 times above the recommended
"If we don't find anything else new about the barrels
or we don't recover any additional barrels, that is potentially
a worse situation in the sense we don't know what we're
leaving behind," Anderson said.
But Swenson notes after spending nearly a half million
dollars and facing prospects of millions of more dollars
to raise even a couple hundred more barrels, the project
ended. Swenson said if funding weren't a problem he thinks
it would be interesting to get a more representative sample.
But he notes with 1,400 barrels in trillions and trillions
of gallons of Lake Superior, "All in all, when you
add up the factors, it seems like the possibility of human
exposure was extremely low."
As it turns out, it was a fisherman in 1968 that first
brought the mystery barrels out of Superior's darkness
and into public light, much like those missile catching
fisherman we told you about earlier.
They would rather worry about putting fish in a barrel,
than about fishing mysteries like the barrels out of Superior's
As Dean Halverson puts it, "I don't think that should've
been done in the first place."
But efforts are underway to learn answers to some of
these mysteries. In the past few months, the Department
of Defense gave the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
$105,000 for a data search with the goal of proposing
whether further action is needed. The Red Cliff Band has
treaty interests in the Lake Superior fishery area. The
study and any proposed action is due by March of 2006.
If you have questions for the state of Minesota about
pollution, you can submit queries to the MPCA at: pca.state.mn.us/ask