Underwater Ticking Bomb?

The oceans may have become ticking time bombs after years of U.S. military dumping have gone almost virtually unregulated, according to government documents. 

Legislation on the books for this fiscal year requires that the secretary of defense issue a yearly report naming the location and quantity of the dumped military munitions in U.S. waters. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007 also mandates sampling and water analysis be done around the disposal sites selected by the secretary. The size of the dump sites as well as the types and quantities of military munitions should also be identified.

"The U.S. Army and DoD (Department of Defense) are working deliberately with other federal agencies to verify locations and dates of military sea disposal operations," an Army spokesperson said of the upcoming report to Congress.

But the problem isn't new. From World War I to the early 1970s, the United States Army has admitted to dumping an estimated 64 million pounds of nerve and mustard agents into U.S. waters alone, according to military documents.

"You can think these munitions are glorified metal containers, but they are corroding and rusting out over time," said Cal Baier-Anderson, a health scientist with Environmental Defense. "When they're (munitions) on the shoreline, they can be unstable. You don't know what's in them."

The weapon disposal sites range from the New Jersey coastline, where the first dumping of the "Cut Holes And Sink 'Em" operation placed 4,577 one-ton containers of mustard agent and 7,380 rockets of nerve gas into the ocean, to the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan, according to U.S. Army Research.

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"The real issues have to do with corrosion and how long the containers remain intact," said Lenny Siegel, the executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight. "It's more the older chemicals that are going to be the problem, such as lewisite, which tends to be persistent in the environment."

Countless amounts of chemical weaponry have been dumped and sometimes sank encased in large, sealed vessels, according to documents issued by the U.S. Army Historical Research and Response Team.

During one disposal event alone in 1946, 191,906 cans of imitation mustard agent were dumped into the Pacific Ocean. Another disposal event in 1955 accounted for one or two barges of "unspecified" toxic munitions into the Gulf of Mexico as stated by the Off-Shore Disposal of Chemical Agents and Weapons Conducted report by the United States in 2001.

"The depth and size of designated sea disposal sites makes locating individual munitions or containers particularly challenging," said an Army spokesperson. "Another complicating factor is that these sites were also often used by others for disposal of materials ranging from garbage to industrial waste."

There is also a worry that these ordnances will be fished up or collected unexpectedly, as in the case of the Delaware driveway incident, where Army munitions were inside clamshells which were dredged up and used to pave many driveways in the state.

"I think, from a human standpoint, one of the worst things that can happen is if this affects a fishery," said Craig McClain, a postdoctoral fellow at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. "Fisheries used to be primarily confined, but now they are moving into deeper water. It begs the question as to the economic impact to these things too. If it [chemical dumping] affected a fishery, then the whole area could become a dead zone."

Despite growing concerns, some environmentalists say nothing is getting done in terms of inspection or clean-up along coastlines known to have once been used for military weapon disposal.

Bob Schoelkopf, the founding director of the Marine Mammal Standing Center in New Jersey, says he was shrugged off by an Army representative after asking the military to take a look at the Atlantic City coastline. 

"We thought it would be a good idea to get shorelines inspected," said Schoelkopf. "No one ever said they would look into it...our mission isn't to watchdog the government. We brought up the concerns, now it's up to someone else to carry the ball."

Carrying the ball may not be that easy, according to some environmental officials. Experts say trying to determine where the munitions have drifted over the years is a complicated task.

"Even if you can pinpoint where they were dumped, the shifting sand and water current moves stuff around," said Baier-Anderson. "It's a tough situation."

According to a spokesperson for the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense has been engaged in a "comprehensive research effort" for the past 20 months to try to assess the impact of sea disposed munitions and the potential consequences of the weapons on the ocean environment. The Army and Department of Defense are working with other federal agencies to provide an update on disposal site locations, according to the U.S. Army spokesperson.

But even if the munitions are located, some environmentalists say the recovery process can be extremely dangerous and not even worth the risk.

"The question always comes up that if there is no release of the munitions, is it worth the risk to pull it up and treat it," said Siegel. "The answer isn't clear. We don't want to risk exposing people to ordnances unless there is a fairly present risk of danger." 

The question of whether or not to pull up these sunken canisters continues to baffle and concern environmentalists, politicians, government officials and the general public.

"With the initial breach of these canisters, the local impact on the biological communities will be quite high," said McClain. "Do I think something should be done? Yes. Do I know what should be done about it? No." 

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