After elf

REPUBLIC – Located in a remote part of Humboldt Township in Republic is a Cold War-era facility that some might never have heard of and others might know only for the controversy that surrounded it. The facility is the former Extremely Low Frequency Naval Radio Transmitter Facility, more widely known as the ELF Project.

ELF became operational in 1989. It consisted of five buildings situated on seven acres, with 56 miles of above-ground antenna strung on poles much like electrical utility transmission lines.

During the Cold War, ballistic missile submarines had to be able to stay submerged and moving in order to avoid detection, and naval strategists wanted to provide continuous and secure radio communications for the subs. ELF was created as the answer. The technology allowed the subs to receive messages without surfacing, where they were most vulnerable.

The Navy decided to pursue ELF as the communication system for submarines.

The ELF program was authorized Aug. 13, 1981, when President Ronald Reagan signed off on its creation.

“There were two facilities, in Clam Lake, Wis. and Republic, Mich., that could either send signals individually or … together that (at full power) would span most of the globe,” Tim Ward, who served as site manager of the ELF facilities from the Aug. 1, 1985 dedication, told The Mining Journal in 2005.

The transmitter facilities and antenna systems were above ground to meet the Navy’s operational needs.

Initial testing of ELF was done in North Carolina and Virginia, said Mark Heinlein, Humboldt Township site manager and former ELF system commander.

Throughout the region, beneath the Great Lakes and north into Canada, lies bedrock known as the Canadian Shield. Heinlein said it’s a low electrical conductivity granite formation.

“The transmitter gives off this sine wave and to have an efficient antenna it has to be the same length as the frequency of the sine wave,” Heinlein said. “The length of a sine wave in 3 to 300 Hz range is probably 2,500 to 3,000 miles long. An antenna that big is feasibly impossible.”

The stations simultaneously broadcast messages 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to the subs. The messages came from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, or Norfolk, Va., by way of secure telephone lines or satellite signals.

Using the unique combination of geology and geography, they beamed signals off the bedrock and bounced them into the ionosphere, an upper layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, 34 miles high. From there, the signal bounced back down and spread out over the globe while penetrating deep below the ocean’s surface, where submarines could pick it up.

As time went on and technology advanced, the antenna necessary to run the ELF system shrunk from 3,000 miles to 56 miles long in Michigan and 28 miles long in Wisconsin, Heinlein said.

According to Heinlein, the transmitter site was located in the center of the antenna. It pumped power into the antenna and that power traveled down all legs of it and went into the ground. Just like an electrical circuit, it needed a return path; the path back to the transmitter site was the low conductivity bedrock, he said.

“So because of the low conductivity and high resistance it became this very, very long path through this bedrock to get back to this site,” Heinlein said. “So that made the antenna appear physically longer to the transmitter components than it really was. But it still took a lot of power into that antenna to allow that to happen just to get a little bit of power radiated off electrically through the ionosphere and atmosphere.”

The system met the Navy’s needs. But it wasn’t without detractors. The ELF transmitter was the target of environmental and peace protests from mid-1980s to the late 1990s, resulting in more than 450 arrests and citations.

Opponents said the transmitter raised risks of nuclear warfare and claimed there was potential for environmental damage from the electromagnetic signals it sent out – the government consistently denied those claims.

The Navy employed an operations and maintenance contractor through a competitive bid process awarding an initial contract to Manufacturing Technology Inc., which was headquartered in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. MTI employed 34 employees at the facility located in Republic, Heinlein said.

The employees lived in the communities of Humboldt, Champion, Republic, Negaunee, Palmer, Ishpeming, Marquette, Trenary, Chatham, Quinnesec and surrounding areas.

The ELF project was turned off Sept. 30, 2004, by the Navy and they began to permanently dismantle its two ELF Transmitter sites.

According to an article published by Ward, the Navy made a public announcement on Sept. 17 that year stating the ELF transmitters were “outdated and no longer needed.” It also said, “Improvements in communications technology and the changing requirements of today’s Navy” rendered ELF obsolete.

The Navy spent an estimated $13 million a year to operate ELF, which was replaced at the time by an array of smaller low-frequency antennas located all over the world. So technology passed ELF by, leaving it a Cold War relic and accomplishing what the various protest groups never could.

The closure also left ELF employees without jobs and many of them had to leave the area to find employment when the project ended.

As part of the dismantling of the system, 900 wooden poles and 56 miles of wire were removed, Heinlein said. The dismantling took more than a year to complete. After that, the Navy planned to have the buildings gutted and torn down, but Humboldt Township and former Congressman Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, stepped in.

According to Heinlein, Stupak recognized the long-term benefits of transferring ownership of the facility to Humboldt Township and drafted special legislation to do so.

“We got involved because they were going to (tear) the facility down and spend millions of bucks doing it,” said Humboldt Township Supervisor Joe Derocha. “That, from my perspective, wasn’t acceptable, when it sits in the middle of a high-forest district and there was no municipal hydrant water. That was our initial interest in the facility.”

When Stupak left Congress, Senator Carl Levin, D-Detroit, stepped up and helped finish what Stupak started, Derocha said. President Obama signed the legislation in 2012 and a check passing ceremony took place Aug. 17. The township paid the Navy $10 for the property. The site is currently being used as a water source for local municipalities.

These days, a new reuse plan for the former ELF site is in the works. Humboldt Township is currently applying to be one of two new sites for the Computer Data Center Co-Location Hosting and Management Facility serving the State of Michigan. The facility buildings, utility and emergency power supplies, communication links, water supplies and location are the reasons Derocha believes it is the perfect reuse plan for the site.

“It’s always been Humboldt Township’s efforts to reuse a facility that’s already been paid for with existing local, state and federal tax dollars,” Derocha said. “It’s already a benefit because it provides fire protection for the area. With the new reuse plan, it will provide jobs and local support.”

Over the past several weeks, nationally renowned firms have been flying in to meet with Humboldt officials.

“They brought in their engineers to look at the ELF site to see how they can either assist or participate along with this data facility reuse plan,” Derocha said. “So we’re really moving quickly and we’re trying to find the best fit.”

The application is due in April and a decision on the next data center site for Michigan will be announced in August.

That decision may spell a new chapter for the facility formerly known as ELF.

Adelle Whitefoot can be reached at 906-486-4401.