EPA investigates barrels possibly containing Agent Orange in popular Wallowa Lake

The Environmental Protection Agency is sending a response team to Wallowa Lake this week to investigate some underwater barrels that may contain toxic Agent Orange.

The investigators planned to send cameras and instruments down to remotely check about two dozen 100-gallon barrels suspected of being dumped there many years ago.

Wallowa Lake is the primary drinking water source for the city of Joseph, about 150 miles southeast of the Tri-Cities.

Water samples have not detected 2,4-D in the drinking water, said Oregon environmental officials.

However, as a precaution, state and city officials plan to continue testing water samples twice a month until the drums are removed.

City officials also will be testing city drinking water. And the state will check the lake water to make sure it’s safe for swimmers.

Dive teams to investigate

The field operation, led by EPA Region 10 Seattle Emergency Response specialists, planned on sending a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) equipped with cameras followed by a team of divers to see what they can learn about the barrels.

Blue Mountain Divers discovered the barrels at the bottom of Lake Wallowa in August 2018. Courtesy Blue Mountain Divers

The barrels were discovered in August 2018 by Lisa Anderson and William Lambert of Blue Mountain Divers, a nonprofit organization in Walla Walla with a mission to find, recover and preserve objects of historical significance from the bottom of lakes and rivers.

“We didn’t know they were there,” Anderson said. “When we dusted one off, we were shocked to see the words ‘weed killer’ on it.”

They immediately contacted the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which notified EPA officials.

Mike Boykin, designated as the EPA on-site coordinator, said that Anderson reported there were about 25 of the 55-gallon drums that were rusted out.

They also saw another 10 to 12 drums that can hold 100 gallons that appeared to still be intact, possibly with chemicals inside.

Boykin said the barrels were marked “2, 4-D or 2, 4, 5-T Weed Killer,” also known as the chemical defoliant Agent Orange.

Agent Orange was widely used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. The chemicals have caused serious health problems for many people who were exposed to them.

Possibly there for 20 years

In Oregon, the barrels appear to be located just outside the boundary of Wallowa Lake State Park at depths of 50 to 100 feet, just outside the marina.

Anderson said that it looked as though they had been there for a while — maybe 10 to 20 years or more.

Oregon DEQ officials said, “… 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 to anchor floating docks.

Over the years, the docks disintegrated or were removed or abandoned, while many of the drums remained in the water at the bottom of the lake.

“... The 100-gallon size and chemical markings on the recently found drums are unusual,” said a DEQ summary on the incident.

While the contents of the barrels are not yet known, both the DEQ and EPA are concerned and are taking steps to investigate.

The officials have no idea how long they’ve been there or how they got there, although illegal dumping is highly likely.

Taking a closer look underwater

Boykin expected to be in Joseph on Wednesday.

They will send the remote-controlled search vehicle into Lake Wallowa to get sonar readings of the bottom and take pictures.

On Thursday, divers hope to test the wall thickness of the barrels and try to determine if the remaining containers can be safely lifted and removed without releasing the contents leaking.

“We are hoping all we find is rocks and water,” Boykin said.

The present plan is to remove the entire collection of barrels and drums in late September or October after tourism and recreational use of the lake has slowed and also when there is no conflict with fish spawning.

That’s when the EPA would hire an independent commercial dive contractor and locate the barrels, roll each of the 100-gallon barrels into a bigger drum, seal the larger container and hoist it to the surface.

Then it would be placed on a barge in spill-protected containers to be taken away.

“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. It has to be stable and sturdy.”

The plan is to treat all of the barrels as if they all contain hazardous substances.

The project investigation and recovery work will be considered a “superfund” cleanup and will be funded by EPA.

An information meeting is planned 6-8 p.m. June 25 in Joseph on the drum-removal project.