Project ELF RIP
curtains are about to close on an epic drama in the north woods
of Wisconsin and Michigan. On Friday, September 17, the U.S. Navy
announced intentions to close its two ELF (extremely low frequency)
communications sites—one in the Chequamegon National Forest
near Clam Lake, Wisconsin; the other in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,
near Republic in the Escanaba State Forest. The announcement drew
immediate cheers from anti-nuke watchdogs who have protested the
sites since plans for the installations hit the drawing boards.
The Associated Press reports the Navy, admitting what opponents
have claimed for years—that their technology is outdated—chose
to close and dismantle the sites because Project ELF no longer serves
its purpose adequately.
in communications technology and the changing requirements of today’s
Navy make the ELF communications system no longer necessary,”
claimed Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command spokesperson Steven
A. Davis. Previously, military advocates proclaimed Project ELF
a necessary tool in maintaining secure communications with the United
States’ global submarine fleet.
the first Gulf War, messages sent from ELF transmitters alerted
submarine fleets in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere to military orders.
While the Trident submarines could not respond and communication
was limited to quick pulses of coded information, the ELF antenna
could direct commanders to surface at appropriate coordinates to
receive more detailed instructions via other communication technologies.
low-energy waves, with wavelengths much longer than radio waves—an
average wave being 2,500 miles long—require an enormous antenna.
In Clam Lake a collection of 600 40-foot towers spaced throughout
sensitive wetland habitats created 2 perpendicular power lines each
running 14 miles. Waves generated here penetrate the ocean to depths
unreachable by radio and other communication waves. Requiring a
million watts of power to generate a two-watt signal, the installation
composes a very large radio transmitter.
Daniel Donovan, Deputy Director for Naval Communications in 1982,
told Discover magazine, “ELF would have to send only
a few code letters to…summon a missile sub nearer the surface
for firing commands.”
only in a first-strike scenario, communications from the transmitter
would alert submarines to begin operations, leading to a potential
launch of their nuclear weapons. The antenna’s location, easily
discerned by anyone with Internet access, almost guaranteed a quick
strike against northern Wisconsin, endangering the lives of people
nearby. Given its incredible energy budget, a simple three-digit
code would still require 30 minutes to be transmitted by the antenna,
an incredibly slow process allowing enemies even more time to destroy
Helen Caldicott, in The New Nuclear Danger: George W.
Bush’s Military-Industrial Complex, argues
that weapons employed by the Trident fleet “are designed to
foil the intent of START II (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which
was specifically designed to eradicate first-strike weapons capable
of destroying missile silos.” Project ELF, thus, had its role
in escalating the post-Cold War defense build- up, increasing the
chances for nuclear annihilation.
low-frequency communication facilities were first hypothesized in
the 1950s, the Navy only proposed its Project Sanguine in 1968,
once scientific advances would allow such an installation. The Sanguine
proposal, which eventually devolved into Project ELF, originally
recommended a 6,000-square-mile grid of lines blanketing northern
Wisconsin. The extensive, shallow granitic bedrock drew the Navy’s
attention to the region as the rock, working analogously to the
hollow chamber of a monstrous guitar, would contribute to the device’s
the face of public opposition, the Navy tried in vain to find less
politically-charged sites elsewhere, including Texas, before returning
to Wisconsin and Michigan with the streamlined Project Seafarer.
Then President Carter stepped in and, heeding strong local opposition,
had the Navy further scale down the proposed installation. The Navy
returned with specs for the current assembly that remained shelved
until Reagan assumed office.
Wisconsinites organized opposition to a proposed mine near Crandon—an
opposition that finally won its epic battle a year ago— grassroots
anti-ELF sentiments also spread through rural communities, eventually
alerting Madison’s activist community. The northern economy,
built around logging and tourism, was not predicted to breed insurgents.
Activists worked to educate their neighbors throughout the state.
Protests on-site began in 1981—eight years before the facility
went on-line—with activists pulling survey stakes. Northern
Wisconsin became a hotbed of protest.
1971 Navy study determined that electromagnetic fields associated
with ELF caused stunted growth in rats. The military sat on the
details of these findings until 1976, even as concerned citizens
worked to unearth information on potential health impacts of the
ELF waves. The Navy convened the Ad Hoc Committee for the Review
of Biomedical and Ecological Effects of ELF Radiation to analyze
their research in 1973. The committee’s members raised concerns
over potentially serious health problems related to the technology,
though their worries carried little weight with militarists desiring
a different message. The ad hoc committee’s findings only reached
the public once Senator Gaylord Nelson, an environmentalist and
progressive Democrat, raised a stink and released the report himself.
battle over “scientific findings” continued for years
with the Navy searching for “experts” willing to vouch
for ELF’s safety while the public’s suspicions grew. Various
figures, such as Dr. Creig R. Kronstedt, released reports describing
the potential impacts on humans, suggesting ways that low-frequency
waves interfered with neural activity. Others suggested that “stray
voltage” reduced milk production in dairy cows. Speculation
proved ubiquitous and though few hard facts surfaced, public relations
eclipsed the scientific pursuit of reliable information. To this
day, anyone expressing concerns over health problems stemming from
exposure to various forms of long-wave energy is likely to be denounced
as a “conspiracy theorist.” In effect, the citizens occupying
lands surrounding the Clam Lake and Republic installations served
as human guinea pigs in a massive study of the long-term effects
of electromagnetic radiation on living beings.
September 2001 the Lac Courte Oreilles band of Chippewa began pressuring
the Navy to determine the nature and extent of health and environmental
problems created by the antenna system. Holding treaty rights as
their trump card, band officials argued that a minimal three million
dollar would be needed for a study examining conditions such as
cancer rates in the four-county area surrounding the project site.
Navy spokesperson Richard Williamson told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
that testing would be money wasted as 5 universities in proximity
to the Great Lakes had already spent $25 million on research that
identified no major effects from the ELF antenna.
Navy required their detractors to provide the burden of proof that
the system caused health problems. Such a burden would require an
incredible investment of time and money, two luxuries least available
to the working people of the northern Midwest. Whenever evidence
surfaced of alleged health effects, the Navy countered with the
required contradictory message.
the Navy—like pharmaceutical companies or food purveyors—should
have been forced to prove their system’s safety. But the Navy’s
secrecy, alongside their perceived need to implement Project ELF,
prevented them from assuming an ethically responsible role. Though
both sites were shut down on September 30, resulting cancers and
other health problems may not surface for some years with victims
unable to trace their misfortune to the antenna.
the debate over the 1996 Senate Defense Appropriations bill, Wisconsin’s
two senators, Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl, succeeded in getting
the Senate to pass an amendment putting an end to Project ELF. Hawks
such as Rep. Bill Young of Florida (R-FL) and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK)
restored funding in a joint House-Senate conference, stressing ELF’s
role in national security. A year later, Feingold, who had fought
the antenna installation diligently on the Senate floor for years,
introduced a bill to end the project, that was costing up to $15
million every year.
State of Wisconsin also fought Project ELF. In 1984, Wisconsin won
a lawsuit against the U.S. Navy. Federal Judge Barbara Crabb ordered
the site decommissioned but an appeals court overturned the finding,
ruling in favor of the Navy and keeping the facility operational.
Clam Lake site became a Mecca for anti-nuclear activists with notable
protests and numerous arrests making the front pages of newspapers
throughout the region for decades. Since 1991, more than 500 arrests
have been made on the ELF site. For example, on Sunday, August 8,
1999—a recurring date for protest chosen in memory of the U.S.
bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—a dozen protesters from
a crowd of 65 were arrested for trespassing on the site. Many participants
had endured a 4-day, 53-mile peace trek from the courthouse in Ashland,
Wisconsin where legal battles over ELF and protesters’ rights
had also waged for decades.
Urfer, a local activist working with the group Nuke- watch, said
that Ashland County stopped issuing trespassing tickets in 2000,
leaving the federal government to take up the slack. In later protests,
Forest Service officials, having jurisdiction over the National
Forest lands, issued tickets, adding meaning to their agency’s
popular description of federal forests, “Land of Many Uses.”
dozen protesters in 2003 wound up in federal court in Madison on
trespassing charges, each fined $150. Federal Magistrate Stephen
Crocker, threatening jail time to repeat offenders, sentenced Duluth
resident Michelle Naar-Obed to 30 days in a federal prison. Naar-Obed,
who has a history of civil disobedience, informed the magistrate
that she had recently witnessed the direct consequences of militarization
upon the innocents of Iraq and suggested he avoid placing his “judicial
stamp of approval” on such acts. Crocker reminded Naar-Obed
that the court did not determine whether or not military actions
activists found a way to take the antenna assembly off-line, protests
took on a whole new meaning. In 2000, two Luck, Wisconsin residents,
Urfer and Michael Sprong, cut down three poles with hand-held saws.
They patiently awaited law enforcement to take them into custody.
Urfer and Sprong were the fifth team to cripple the multi-million
dollar device with tools available for less than ten dollars in
any hardware store.
counter Project ELF, Nukewatch formed in 1979 in the small town
of Luck. The group organized regular anti-ELF actions while also
carefully monitoring shipments of nuclear materials throughout the
United States by train, truck, and other vehicles.
explains that, despite the closing, Nukewatch’s activists have
“mixed emotions” over the Navy’s announcement. “Most
people are extremely skeptical of the reasons that the Navy gave,”
she reports, noting several more credible reasons for the Navy’s
abandoning the sites. Speculation centers on the belief the Navy
wishes to appear frugal to improve its chances of garnering more
funding for operations in the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq,
plus any potential incursions into Iran, Syria, North Korea, or
elsewhere. Some think that the Navy finally realized that the ELF
site proved too vulnerable, so leaders opted for a higher number
of low-frequency installations around the globe.
believe that another related technology, developed in the High-frequency
Active Auroral Research Program, with its misleading acronym HAARP,
may prove more effective in communicating with their underwater
fleet. The HAARP website appears to justify the suspicions with
its self-description: “HAARP is a scientific endeavor aimed
at studying the properties and behavior of the ionosphere, with
particular emphasis on being able to understand and use it to enhance
communications and surveillance systems for both civilian and defense
asked to estimate the affect Nukewatch’s peaceful protests
had on the Navy’s decision, minces no words. “I think
our part in it’s probably zero,” she offers, adding, “We’re
not even spit in the bucket when it comes to a campaign in this
country.” She notes that other actions, including the fight
to close the School of the Americas, dwarf Nukewatch’s actions
in Wisconsin. But, Urfer adds, Nukewatch has planty of potential
Douglas J. Buege
frequently writes on environmental issues, focusing on northern Wisconsin.
He’s currently writing a history of the American chestnut and
efforts to restore it.