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DuPont closed a chapter on explosives manufacturing in the Chequamegon Bay area in the early 1970s when it shuttered Barksdale Works. But work there is far from over.
The DuPont facility began manufacturing explosives such as TNT, dynamite and nitroglycerine for the U.S. military, mining operations and agriculture at the beginning of the 20th century. During its nearly 70 years of operation, 36 men were killed at Barksdale Works — a 1928 explosion claimed two lives and another in 1952 killed eight.
After DuPont closed the 1,800-acre facility between Ashland and Washburn, it faced the daunting — and lengthy — task of cleaning up chemical contamination at the site. That effort launched in 1998, and to date, about 787 acres have been opened for recreational use and 702 acres for unrestricted use.
But much more work needs to be done, and Bradley S. Nave, project director for Chemours Corp. Remediation Group, explained the ongoing process to the community at Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center Thursday evening.
Working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the company has focused in recent years on locating and destroying TNT in a 329-acre former World War I production area, Nave said.
Nave has worked on the Barksdale remediation process for about 18 years, and he and his coworkers have been piloting a remediation technique that uses living creatures to do a lot of the cleanup work.
The company's biological remediation, otherwise known as bio-pilot cells, destroys the explosive DNT, project manager Cory Pooler said.
In areas containing predominately DNT, the ground is aerated, and when rain saturates the soil, indigenous microorganisms eat the DNT, converting it to carbon dioxide and water.
But the presence of TNT inhibits the growth of the microorganisms, so the company then adds hydrated lime to the soil to reduce the concentration of the explosive.
"We found it to be quite successful," Nave said.
But there was a caveat. The hydrated lime maneuver works well only when TNT is present in small pieces. Therefore, Chemours is experimenting with ways to reduce the size of TNT to manageable chunks with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The company prefers to handle all remediation efforts on site, but if it finds workers and techniques can't handle the materials it hauls them away for destruction elsewhere.
About a dozen community members attended the annual update, and Nave said considering the continuing interest, Chemours probably will schedule another update next year.
Nathanael Bonnell, who rents a room in a house on Nolander Road in the town of Barksdale, attended the update over concerns about possible water contamination.
DNT is supposed to be a carcinogen, said the 30-year-old recent arrival to the Chequamegon Bay area, and he sought answers about groundwater contamination.
After listening to Nave's presentation, Bonnell said he felt about as good as he could about the cleanup, although he still wasn't thrilled a largescale explosives plant had operated in the area.
Remediation crews will continue to work at the site for about another month and return next year after the ground thaws. Nave said Chemours would return year after year until the site is clean of contaminants.
Mist rose from the lake and through the blackness as the water parted around Zach Lawson's boat.
He and his crew were prowling the shores of a 75-acre lake in southern Ashland County on the first night of autumn. Their quarry: Walleyes.
As many as they could possibly catch.
Lawson is no poacher. He's a Department of Natural Resources inland fisheries biologist for Iron and Ashland counties, and his crew was jolting the lake with hundreds of volts of electricity, stunning its inhabitants — walleyes, muskies, the occasional tadpole and just about anything else that strayed between the two booms protruding from the boat's bow.
Lawson and fishery technicians Jason Folstad and Jim Zarzycki would spend the night doing the same thing they've done for years and would do on another 15 or 18 lakes this fall: counting and measuring fish to ensure the lake's regulations are best suited to keeping its fish healthy and abundant.
A serious jolt
As the crew slowly poked along through the lake's shallows, the two booms in front sent about 300 volts and 3 or 4 amps of electricity into the water through metal cables dangling from the booms.
It's enough power to briefly stun fish and other wildlife, sending them floating to the surface where Lawson and Folstad scooped them up with nets and deposited them in a 100-gallon stock tank.
A generator grunted along in the stern of the flat-bottomed boat, pumping out electricity to power the booms and the pumps that keep lake water constantly circulating in and out of the tank, keeping the fish cool and oxygenated.
They shock in the fall and at night because they're really interested in one thing: baby fish, also known as fingerlings.
At night, they can be sure fish will move into the shallows where they're susceptible to the voltage, which only penetrates three or four feet beneath the surface. And in the autumn, most large adult fish are in deeper water.
"You can tell a whole lot about the health of a lake just by looking at the juveniles," Lawson said. "We'll look at this system and its data over time, and that will really tell the story about how this lake is doing."
Turns out it's doing pretty well. In just under an hour of cruising the lake — which the DNR asked not to be named — the stock tank was stacked with dozens of walleyes, a handful of muskies and a couple of tiny perch.
The walleyes ranged in size from about 5 inches to just over 18. And in those numbers was a compelling story.
Eating their own
Lawson said the 5-and 6-inch fish probably hatched this year, and they had a couple dozen in the tank. The 8-and 9-inchers probably were two years old.
But then there was a gap — a dearth of fish between about 9 inches and 14 inches. And in 48 minutes of shocking, the jolts had brought just a few perch and panfish to the surface.
That told the crew something mildly troubling.
"The walleyes on this lake are cannibals," Lawson said.
The fact that large walleyes are dining on their own descendants in and of itself isn't troubling – lots of fish do that. But the lack of panfish and gap in the population suggest that the large walleyes and muskies are eating everything in sight.
"It's a fish eat fish world out there," Zarzycki said. "It's tough for young walleyes in here."
That suggests the regulations for the lake are right on. Anglers are allowed to take three walleyes per day with no minimum size limit and only one fish over 14 inches. Those rules will help grow big trophy walleyes while encouraging anglers to keep the young adults that are eating all the forage fish and baby walleyes.
The data over time tell the crew that the lake has been naturally reproducing and sustaining itself well since 1992.
To stock or not
Not all lakes are that fortunate. Some don't have enough nutrients and organic matter to sustain themselves. Some are so overfished that it's hard to find an adult. Some, well, who knows what the problem is?
The lake the crew shocked on this night once was a good largemouth bass lake. But something changed, and they didn't find one bass all night.
All that data allow the DNR to determine if a lake should be stocked with additional walleyes or other fish.
"We saw what we wanted to see tonight," Lawson said. "This system has plenty of juveniles and it's not being stocked, so the walleyes are naturally reproducing. If there's three pounds of walleyes per acre of water and very little forage, that puts all the pieces of the puzzle together."
The puzzle says the regulations on this lake are working well.
"We definitely don't need to stock here, if you want a lot of action for fishermen, you keep the regulations as they are," Lawson said. "If you want to increase the size of the fish, you might recommend a higher limit. It's all a balancing act."
To maintain that balance, the crew counts and measures all the fish and returns them unharmed — the jolt wears off in about two minutes — to the lake. It also takes scale samples from a handful of each size, allowing them to assess the growth rate of young walleyes.
Muskies are a different story.
The team netted just a handful on this night — the monster muskies are pretty wise to the ways of anglers and bolt when they hear or see the shock boat moving into the shallows.
The largest was about 17 inches, and Folstad inserted an electronic tag under its skin that will be recorded in a database with its size and the date it was tagged.
The next time the crew shocks this lake, it will use a scanner on every musky netted. The scanner will detect a tag and allow the crew to track the fish's growth and movement over time.
That sort of information helped the DNR transform the musky into the trophy fish it is today.
Speaking of trophies, Zarzycki has been tormenting fish with high voltage since 1989, and the largest musky he ever netted went 53 inches.
That fish was shocked on an Iron County lake, the location of which Zarzycki is keeping to himself.
"A lot of times, we'll shock a lake and find just a ton of fish and I'll say, 'I gotta come back and fish here,'" Lawson said. "Then I come back and I can't catch a thing. It can be really embarrassing because you know the fish are in here."
That can be a hard truth to get across to anglers and shoreline property owners.
"You hear the complaints from people, 'Oh, there's no fish in here. It's a dead lake,'" Zarzycki said. "Then you come out and shock it and show them the results and they still don't believe it. And some people think you're actually taking fish from the lake because we're out here sneaking around at night and they see you throwing them into the tank."
Skeptics are not the only occupational hazard. Though he wears a glove while measuring fish, Lawson invariably goes home with a few stab wounds from walleye dorsal fins.
And even with every safety measure in place, each man on the crew has been lit up once or twice by 300 volts coursing through his body.
"It'll put a froth in you, that's for sure," Lawson said.
The Bad River Band's Head Start program will grow to serve 89 children up to 5 years old, soon-tobe moms and families from low-income households when its new home on the reservation east of Ashland is completed.
Construction crews recently laid the foundation for a nearly 13,000-squarefoot building near the tribe's Health & Wellness Center in Odanah to replace a Head Start complex built as temporary accommodations 25 years ago, said Doug Jennings, tribal planner.
Before construction even started on the $4.3 million project, the tribe spent weeks building up the site on the wetlands-dotted reservation and has hauled in more than 5,000 truckloads of dirt so far, Jennings said.
But when the dust settles, construction crews erect the factory-made walls, and the doors open, the tribe will be able to add programs, including an Ojibwe language immersion class, for an estimated 89 children.
Bad River Head Start Director Luanne Wiggins said 57 3-to 5-year-old students participate in the tribe's Head Start program, but staff will be able to serve another 32 kids from birth to 3 when programming expands at their new location. In the process, Head Start staffing will double the size.
Wiggins anticipates having 24 openings for children age birth to 3, plus 20 spots to provide families at home with Head Start services and another five spots for prenatal mothers.
The building, which will be connected to the tribe's solar power array once it's constructed, will feature more classrooms, including one devoted to Ojibwe language learning, giving children the earliest possible opportunity to learn their native tongue.
The site's playground areas will be about as large as the building's classrooms combined, Jennings said. Besides expanding the outdoors recreation area, the tribe plans for them to be as natural as possible and without plastic equipment, Wiggins said.
The price tag for the new building isn't cheap, and the tribe is paying for the project through a combination of grants, donations and loans.
The project has received $2.3 million in federal grants from the Office of Head Start, Administration for Children and Families and U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
Donations from the tribe and foundations account for another $600,000, and the tribe will borrow the remaining balance, Jennings said.
The contractors are slated to complete the project by Feb. 6, and Head Start will close for a couple of weeks for the move into the new building.
For more information about Bad River Head Start, qualifications to enroll and available openings call 715-682-7144 or visit badrivernsn.gov/tribal-operations/education-76834/headstart-program.