Clam Lake prepares to battle for Navy system

Clam Lake prepares to battle for Navy system


The Journal staff

Clam Lake, Wis. Mention the US Navy’s ELF communications system to any longtime resident here and chances are good that he once worked there, or that she has a friend or neighbor who did.

That’s why, despite a 20-year history of protests by environmentalists and peace groups, it’s tough to find anyone who lives here who opposes ELF.

ELF, which stands for extremely low frequency, is a radio signal communications system that sends messages to nuclear powered submarines traveling in deep waters around the world. The system transmits from two sites one hidden in the midst of the Chequamegon National Forest, near here, the other at Republic, Mich., in the Upper Peninsula.

Now, opponents of the ELF system are close to winning the debate. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted earlier this month to eliminate the program’s $14 million budget. The measure still needs the approval of the full Senate, a conference committee with the House, and President Clinton. nothing new as of 2 p.m. Friday. T desk watching for us

While the Senate ponders the issue, people at Deb’s YGoBy bar in Clam Lake were signing petitions to save ELF. The petitions were drafted by employees at the transmitter site who are worried about losing their jobs.

Support for those employees and concerns about the loss of the $1.5 million that ELF pumps into the area economy are the motivation, most residents say.

Art Nelson, 61, of nearby Glidden, has lived in the area for 40 years. He remembers his years during the 1970s as an employee of the Illinois Institute of Technology Research, a firm that conducts tests at and near the site. Nelson, who now works at the gas station- grocery-bait-and-souvenir shop in Clam Lake, says he tested everything from insects to television sets.

“ELF has been good for the economy,” Nelson said. “We have good families that have moved in, houses that have gone in here and in Glidden and Mellen.”

Nelson knew of no one who had been harmed by the system. But he said he still was not entirely convinced that it’s not harmful.

Jerry Holter, 65, who sells his wood carvings in a shop in Clam Lake, and his wife, Tish, are convinced that ELF is safe. The couple, who live close to one of ELF’s seven- mile-long antennas, are among the projects biggest boosters.

“People don’t really take the time to find out what ELF does,” Jerry Holter said. “The peace-niks that have corralled publicity on this have used fear to destroy our submarine fleet.”

Tish Holter was one of a few local women who submitted to a five-year series of health tests conducted at the Great Lakes naval base in northern Illinois and at the Aerospace Center in Pensacola, Fla., during the 1970s. Holter said she had seen the results of those tests and of every other test conducted about ELF, and she is satisfied that the system is safe.

“What I didn’t understand,” she said, “I called experts and asked.”

The Holters’ son-in-law, Robert Rice Jr. of Clam Lake, is similarly unconcerned, but less enthusiastic in his support of the project.

“I think it’s obsolete,” Rice said. But he has friends who work there and it’s good for the economy, he said.

Rice worked at ELF for five years, caring for the ELF bull, Sylvester. The point of keeping him there, Rice said, was a fertility test.

Sylvester passed the test, and, Rice points out proudly, so did he.

“I had two kids,” Rice said. “So we were both fine.” System Called Obsolete

People who oppose ELF generally have two concerns. They say the system, which sends messages very slowly three letters take 45 minutes to transmit is a first-strike weapon that is abhorrent to those who oppose nuclear war. Furthermore, they say, the Cold War is over and the system is no longer needed.

The second argument cites new studies that they say raise questions about current government safety levels for microwave and radio frequency emissions.

The Navy’s official response to the Cold War argument says that the ELF system is needed because it is the only system that can communicate with submarines at great depths. ELF serves as a “bell ringer,” the Navy says, that tells the sub to come up to a level where it can receive more complicated messages. This capability is needed for operational flexibility, the Navy says.

The Navy says the most recent Illinois Institute tests show no environmental problems. The test results are under review by the National Academy of Sciences.

But that may be a moot point if Congress acts to kill the program.

Copyright 1995

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