In August of 2018, Lisa Anderson and William Lambert were SCUBA diving in the south end Wallowa Lake just off the Marina where the water deepens abruptly. They are members of Blue Mountain Divers, a non-profit SCUBA diving organization that seeks to find, recover, and preserve historic and archeological objects that are now at the bottoms of lakes and rivers. Working at depths of 50-120 feet, where the water deepens abruptly just north of the marina, they found a metal milk jug, and a couple of other things. Then they saw the barrels.

They bore labels that said ‘2,4-D or 2,4,5-T WEED KILLER.’

“There were about twenty-five 55 gallon drums, and a dozen bigger 100 gallon barrels,” said Blue Mountain Divers diver Lisa Anderson. “It looked as though they had been there for awhile—ten, 20 years or more. The smaller drums were corroded, and whatever was in them had probably already leaked out. But the big ones were sturdier. They seemed to be intact.”

Lambert and Anderson ended their dive, and once home in Walla Walla, contacted Oregon DEQ. The report that Blue Mountain Divers filed included photographs and videos of one of the 55-gallon barrels, showing the 2,4-D 2,4,5-T label. Their report also noted that they did not know whether the barrels were full or empty, or how long they had been in the lake. But what alarmed them was that “the ingredients in 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T were nearly identical to the infamous Agent Orange, and also a known carcinogen,” Blue Mountain Divers said in their report.

Wallowa Lake is the primary source of drinking water for Joseph.

In their response to Blue Mountain Divers’ complaint, Oregon DEQ noted “Drums have been found at the lake bottom for years, a remnant of when empty drums were used extensively at the lake to anchor docks. It was common practice at the time for people to fill the drums with water, rocks or cement and anchor the drums with rope to floating docks. Drums were also commonly used to provide flotation to docks. Over the years, as the docks disintegrated or were removed or abandoned, many of the drums remained, especially those used as anchors.”

Nevertheless, DEQ coordinated with EPA in analyzing and resolving the problem. Although no pesticides or herbicides have been detected in Joseph’s drinking water, the fact that the drums were discovered in an area where nothing similar had been found before was a concern. EPA made the decision to remove the barrels from Wallowa Lake.

At the EPA’s request, Blue Mountain Divers will help them relocate the barrels so that commercial HazMat divers under contract to EPA could remove the barrels from Wallowa Lake. Later this month Blue Mountain Divers plans a dive to relocate what the EPA has termed “historic drums”. “We are going to use negative buoyant cord, similar to that used in cave diving, to help them find the barrels,” Anderson said. “The negatively-buoyant string won’t get snagged by fishing lines.”

“The EPA and DEQ are collaborating to develop a plan to recover the barrels—especially the larger, seemingly intact ones,” said Mike Boykin, project coordinator for DEQ. The present idea is to remove the entire collection of barrels and drums in fall, 2019—probably in late September or October, once tourism and lake use has subsided, and also when there is no conflict with fish spawning. They plan to engage an independent commercial dive contactor who would use “Hard-Hat” fully-suited divers to locate the subsurface containers, roll each of the 100-gallon barrels into a bigger drum, seal that larger container, and hoist it to the surface where it would be placed on a barge. “Each of those bigger, sealed containers could weigh a half-ton or more,” Boykin said. “So the equipment needs to be up to the job. The barge can’t just be a rowboat. It has to be stable and sturdy.”

Although it’s unknown whether the larger barrels (or for that matter, some smaller 55 gallon drums) are 1) still intact and still contain herbicide, or 2) were empty when placed in the lake and are now merely filled with water, or 3) were once part of a pier foundation and are weighted down by concrete, the plan is to treat them all as hazardous material.

The project will likely take about a week. It is considered a “superfund” cleanup or, technically, a CERCLA action– Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, and will be funded by EPA under that act.

“We want to be sure everything stays clean, and we do this right,” Boykin said. “If the barrels are still full and they open up, the first thing that you’ll see is likely to be a fish kill. We don’t want to take any chances of that happening.”

The plan for safe removal of these barrels is still under development. Before a date can be set, there will be consultation with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Nez Perce Fisheries to ensure there is no conflict with fish spawning or migration. Wallowa Lake State Park will have a say in the plan. Local festivals, including the Dragon Boat races that occur at the south end of the lake will also have input.

Although no 2,4-D or 2,4,5-T have been detected in Joseph’s drinking water, DEQ will carefully monitor the water quality in both Wallowa Lake and in Joseph’s treated drinking water while the divers are recovering the suspicious barrels. To date, DEQ has not tested the water in Wallowa Lake. “If some product has leaked out in the past,” said DEQ project coordinator Jamie Collins, “some of it may have degraded into other chemicals. Some of it may be stored in the lake bed sediments, and some of it may be in the water column.”

“When I was at the site in May, I talked with the city administrator and also the mayor of Joseph. Once we have a better idea of when we will be doing the work, we want to have a public meeting to present our plan so residents can understand what’s going on, ask questions, and have some input.” Boykin said.

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