As much as the Red Cliff Band of Chippewa Indians can be credited for its tenaciousness and for doing all it has to find out, the contents of those mystery barrels in Lake Superior, secrecy, and a lack of transparency continue to mar the efforts.
Last summer, the band, working with an environmental engineering firm from Duluth, set out to bring up, bust open, inspect and test for safety and/or hazardous materials 70 of the more than 1400 barrels dumped in the big lake in the late 1950s and early 1960s not far from the Duluth-Superior Harbor.
The Department of Defense barrels were said to hold scrap metal from a grenade project the U.S. was eager to keep secret from the Soviets, but reports of purplish ooze, bouncing Geiger counters, and more fueled speculation, concern, and even conspiracy theorists.
The band recovered only 25 barrels, and it did so under what was called a “news blackout.” No media was allowed near the recovery work and there were no briefings with reporters about what was going on or what was found. A “safety zone” kept curious boats well away.
“We need to stay focused on the work rather than informing the public,” Red Cliff Environmental Director Melonee Montano said.
The band apparently wasn’t focused on informing anyone else, either. Despite promises to keep state and federal authorities up-to-date, and assurances that that was happening, in January, six months after the recovery work was said to be completed, officials from the MPCA, the Secretary of the Army, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and elsewhere complained they hadn’t received any information.