Bureaucracy reigns supreme in pollution flap

Looking for an example of a bureaucracy trying to fix one problem and generating another? Try looking beneath the waves of western Lake Superior.

A total of 22 barrels holding military ammunition, originally dumped into Lake Superior decades ago and recovered just last year, have now been re-dumped because a Wisconsin American Indian tribe lacked a federal waiver to bring them ashore.

This is a prime case of good intentions leading to foolish actions.

Last summer, the barrels were raised from the bottom of the lake, where they have sat since being dumped off barges in the late 1950s and early 1960s as part of a secret military project. The taxpayer-funded project was part of a $3.3 million Department of Defense program aimed at cleaning up military pollution on Indian lands. The barrels are located outside of Duluth Harbor, about 50 miles from the The Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation, and the band has treaty authority to help manage natural resources on the lake.

When they were raised, the barrels were found to contain thousands of tiny firecracker-sized explosive devices. Officials are worried about a chain reaction setting the barrels off.

So getting these potentially harmful barrels off the bottom of Lake Superior must have been a good thing, right? No. Apparently the barrels were not allowed to be brought ashore at all because there are no federally approved facilities to receive explosives on the Great Lakes. So the tribe and the contractor who pulled the barrels up said they were left with no choice but to sink them again.

The explosive devices were taken out of the original 55-gallon drums, put into new containers and dumped back into Superior, with the site marked by GPS. The tribe and the contractor hope to get federal waivers to retrieve the containers – again – soon. The whole exercise seems a colossal misuse of time and money. And the bureaucratic mess doesn’t end there.

The tribe apparently transported three barrels, which it said fell below the threshhold of hazardous material, to a disposal facility in Sheboygan, Wis. That move sparked an investigation by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, trying to determine whether the barrels were moved without proper permits or notification.

With an estimated 1,400 barrels of military waste still in rusting barrels at the bottom of the lake, we think regulatory agencies should focus on the cleanup rather than on forcing pollution back into the lake.

A study of whether raising these barrels or allowing them to sink into the sediment would be better for the long term human and ecological health of the area is being undertaken.

That report is due by September. We hope it offers a clear path forward for cleaning up this site. Beyond that, we urge all agencies – state, federal and tribal – to get on the same page. Recovering the barrels only to sink them again is a huge … waste.