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Great Lakes Article:

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," Evanow said.

Retired fisherman Jim Erickson said he snagged a dummy missile while fishing with his son, Fred, who remembers it well.

"I thought it was the neatest thing ever," Fred said.

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 the lake."

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 sites.

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," Anderson said.

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 limit.

"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 waters.

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:

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