UPDATE: June 14, 5 p.m. from Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Public Affairs Specialist Laura Gleim:
IMPORTANT CLARIFICATION: The labels on the herbicide drums EPA, DEQ, and Blue Mountain Divers have seen in Wallowa Lake say “2,4-D or 2,4,5-T”— indicating the drums might contain one or the other herbicide, not both, and NOT “Agent Orange.”
Both were commonly used herbicides. During the Vietnam war era the two herbicides were combined for the military at very high concentrations to make “Agent Orange,” which was not manufactured for commercial use. The labels on the drums in Wallowa Lake appear to be commercial labels, not military labels.
Again, the labels the agencies have seen to-date say “2,4-D or 2,4,5-T.” There is currently no evidence of drums of “Agent Orange.”
As of midday Friday, responders had identified 18 drums so far, both intact and rusted out, using a remotely operated vehicle. One drum has the “2,4-& or 2,4,5-T” label and appears to be intact. There’s no evidence of any leaking drums at this time. Divers are now working at around 90-120 feet, doing detailed assessments of the drums. Their top priority is doing visual and tactile assessment on drums that appear to be intact
Responders will continue the assessment, and if conditions allow, could begin removing the highest priority drums as early as tomorrow.
JOSEPH, Oregon – Approximately twelve seemingly intact 100-gallon drums labeled with the herbicides “”2,4-D or 2.4.5-T” are sitting on the bottom of Wallowa Lake towards the south shore.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with the assistance from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, is investigating to determine what the drums contain and how to safely remove them after they were discovered last summer by Lisa Anderson and William Lambert, members of Blue Mountain Divers, a nonprofit scuba diving organization whose mission is to find, recover and preserve objects of historical significance that are sitting at the bottom of lakes and rivers.
Over the years, many 55-gallon drums have been filled with rocks and concrete to be used as anchors for floating docks. EPA and DEQ anticipate the larger drums may be similarly harmless given this history, but the agencies won’t know for sure until the drums are removed and tested.
According to a press release from DEQ, an EPA contractor used side scan sonar Thursday to map the lake bottom in the area around the drums. The team also calibrated and deployed a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, to take underwater photos and video. Officials are currently analyzing that data.
Significant logistical challenges were identified as the water is deep, cold, and at high elevation (4,372 feet). Estimated depths of the drums range between 90 to 140 feet. The water conditions will likely constrain the amount of time divers can spend doing the work. Divers may be able to spend a few as five minutes at the depths they are able to reach, and they likely won’t be able to descend to the deeper depths. The response plan will continue to evolve as the responders get more information.
Meantime, the DEQ said, as a precaution, the City of Joseph is temporarily sourcing its drinking water from a backup well rather than the lake during the drum investigation and removal activities.
Teams have been testing the water and lake sediment for the herbicides and DEQ said no herbicide has previously been found in the drinking water from the lake.
“We don’t yet have water sample results,” Oregon DEQ Public Affairs Specialist Laura Gleim said.
The Oregon Health Authority and DEQ advised that visitors to Lake Wallowa may continue with normal activities until further notice.
“The lake is not closed to visitors, although there may be some restricted areas,” Gleim added.
The DEQ said removing the drums is a logistically challenging effort.
“We’re still working on logistics and don’t yet have an update on initial data or timing for removal,” Gleim said.
As for reports that drums could be released as early as tomorrow, Bill Dunbar from the EPA sent this statement to KTEL News: “Actually its possible drums could be removed. It’s entirely dependent on what we find today. If we determine there is a drum or drums that need to removed quickly it could be done as soon as tomorrow. But again, we don’t know enough right now to say one way or the other. We should have a better idea tonight after we analyze the data we get from today’s operations.”