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On the bottom of Wallowa Lake, toward the south shore, there are reportedly 25 55-gallon and 12 seemingly intact 100-gallon drums labeled with the herbicides "2,4-D or 2,4,5-T." Despite their labels, the contents of the drums are currently unknown. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with assistance from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, is investigating to determine what the drums contain and how to safely remove them.
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 they won’t know for sure until the drums are removed and tested.
For this reason, the response team is proceeding with an abundance of caution and treating the drums as if they pose a threat to public health, safety and the environment.
EPA and DEQ are working with the City of Joseph, Wallowa Lake State Park, Oregon Department of State Lands, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Health Authority, Oregon State Marine Board, Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office, Nez Perce Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
EPA, DEQ conclude on-site investigation at Wallowa Lake, find 74 non-intact drums, containing only lake water, and only one with a herbicide label.
UPDATE: June 14 - IMPORTANT CLARIFICATION:
The labels on the 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-D 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 (Saturday June 15).
UPDATE: June 13, 6 p.m.
EPA’s contractor used side scan sonar 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 will be analyzing the data tonight.
Significant logistical challenges identified: 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 as 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.
UPDATE: June 13, 9 a.m.
The City of Joseph is temporarily sourcing its drinking water from a backup well rather than the lake as a precaution during drum investigation and removal activities.
UPDATE: June 12
Teams will be testing the water and lake sediment for the herbicides; no herbicide has previously been found in the drinking water from the lake. Oregon Health Authority advises that visitors to Wallowa Lake may continue with normal activities until further notice.
Removing the drums is a logistically challenging effort, but teams may begin removing the drums after the initial site assessment as early as June 15.
For the latest updates see the notices section.