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WMD Finally Found!
Army Secret Surfaces: Deadly Chemicals at Sea
By John Bull
The Morning Call
Sunday 30 October 2005
Millions of pounds of unused weapons of mass destruction were dumped in oceans before Congress banned the practice in 1972. The threat is still out there, and may be growing.
First of a Two-Day Series
A clam dredging operation off the coast of Atlantic City, N.J., in 2004 pulled up an old artillery shell.
The long-submerged, World War I-era explosive was filled with a black, tar-like substance.
Bomb disposal technicians from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware were brought in to dismantle it. Three of them were injured, one hospitalized with large, pus-filled blisters on his arm and hand.
The shell was filled with mustard gas in solid form.
What was long-feared by the few military officials in the know had come to pass: Chemical weapons that the Army dumped at sea decades ago had finally ended up on shore in the United States.
While it has long been known that some chemical weapons went into the ocean, records obtained by the Daily Press of Newport News, Va., show that the previously classified weapons-dumping program was far more extensive than has ever been suspected.
The Army now admits in reports never before released that it secretly dumped 64 million pounds of nerve and mustard gas agent into the sea, along with 400,000 chemical-filled bombs, land mines and rockets and more than 500 tons of radioactive waste either tossed overboard or packed into the holds of scuttled vessels.
A Daily Press investigation also found:
These weapons of mass destruction virtually ring the country, concealed off the coasts of at least 11 states: six on the East Coast, including New Jersey and Maryland, two on the Gulf Coast, and in California, Hawaii and Alaska. Few, if any, state officials have been informed of their existence.
The chemical agents could pose a hazard for generations. The Army has examined only a few of its 26 dump zones, and none in 30 years.
The Army can't say exactly where all the weapons were dumped from World War II to 1970. Army records are sketchy, missing or were destroyed.
More dump sites probably exist. The Army hasn't reviewed records from the World War I era, when ocean dumping of chemical weapons was common.
"We do not claim to know where they all are," said William Brankowitz, a deputy project manager in the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency and a leading authority on the Army's chemical weapons dumping. "We don't want to be cavalier at all and say this stuff was exposed to water and is OK. It can last for a very, very long time."
A drop of nerve agent can kill within a minute. When released in the ocean it lasts up to six weeks, killing every organism it touches before breaking down into its nonlethal chemical components.
Mustard gas can be fatal. When exposed to seawater it forms a concentrated, encrusted gel that lasts for at least five years, rolling around on the ocean floor, killing or contaminating sea life.
Sea-dumped chemical weapons may be slowly leaking from decades of saltwater corrosion, resulting in a time-delayed release of deadly chemicals over the next 100 years and an unforeseeable environmental impact. Steel corrodes at different rates depending on the water depth, ocean temperature and thickness of the shells.
That was the conclusion of Norwegian scientists who in 2002 examined chemical weapons dumped off Norway's coast after World War II by the U.S. and British military.
Overseas, more than 200 fishermen over the years have been burned by mustard gas pulled on deck. A fisherman in Hawaii was burned in 1976 when he brought up an Army-dumped mortar round full of mustard gas.
Although it seems unlikely the weapons will begin to wash up on shore, last year's discovery that a mustard gas-filled artillery shell was dumped off the coast of New Jersey was ominous for several reasons.
It was the first ocean-dumped chemical weapon to make its way to shore in the United States.
It was pulled up with clams in relatively shallow water only 20 miles off the coast of Atlantic City. The Army had no idea chemical weapons were dumped in the area.
Most alarming: It was found intact in a residential driveway in Delaware.
It had survived being dredged up and put through a crusher to create cheap clamshell driveway fill sold throughout the Delmarva Peninsula in Delaware and Maryland.
Decades of Dumping
The United States never used chemical weapons in war but amassed a huge stockpile to be unleashed if enemy forces used them first. Their existence was a known, ultimately successful, deterrent.
The Army's secret ocean-dumping program spanned at least three decades, from 1944 to 1970.
The dumped weapons were deemed to be unneeded surplus. They were hazardous to transport, expensive to store, too dangerous to bury and difficult to destroy.
In the early 1970s, the Army publicly admitted it had dumped some chemical weapons off the U.S. coast. Congress banned the practice in 1972. Three years later, the United States signed an international treaty prohibiting ocean disposal of chemical weapons.
Only now have Army reports come to light that show how much was dumped, what kind of chemical weapons they were, when they were thrown overboard, and rough nautical coordinates of where some are located.
The reports contain bits and pieces of information on the Army's long-running ocean dumping program. The reports were released to the Daily Press, which cross-indexed them to obtain the most comprehensive, detailed picture yet compiled of what was dumped, where and when.
To put the information in context, the newspaper also examined nautical charts, National Archive records and scientific studies and interviewed many experts on unexploded ordnance and chemical warfare, both in the country and overseas.
The Army's Brankowitz created the seminal report on ocean dumping. He examined classified Army records and in 1987 wrote a lengthy report on chemical weapons movements over the decades. It included the revelation that more than a dozen shipments ended in the ocean. The report was not widely disseminated.
His follow-up report in 1989 revealed, through review of other previously classified documents, the rough nautical coordinates of some dump sites and the existence of more dump zones. In 2001, a computer database was created to include additional dump zones the Army discovered and more details of some of the dumping operations.
The database summary and the 1989 report had never before been released publicly.
"I know I didn't find everything," said Brankowitz, who has worked for more than 30 years on chemical weapons issues for the Army. "I'm very much convinced there are records at the National Archives that have been misfiled. Short of a major research effort that would cost a lot of money, we've done the best we can."
The reports reveal that the Army created at least 26 chemical weapons dump sites off the coastlines of at least 11 states, but knows the rough nautical coordinates of only half the sites.
At least 64 million pounds of liquid mustard gas and nerve agent in one-ton steel canisters were dumped into the sea, along with at least 400,000 chemical-filled bombs, grenades, land mines and rockets as well as radioactive waste, according to the reports.
The Army's documents are incomplete or vague. Years of records are missing or were destroyed to clear office space at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, a longtime chemical weapon research and testing base.
And the Army has not reviewed its records of chemical weapons dumping before World War II, when it was common to just throw the weapons into the ocean in relatively shallow water, Brankowitz said.
As a result, more dump sites probably exist, he conceded.
Possible Environmental Disaster
The environmental impact of chemical weapons dump sites is unknown, but potentially disastrous.
The ocean depth varies widely off the East Coast, as a rule gradually deepening to 600 feet before hitting the outer continental shelf, which drops off into very deep water. The shelf's location can be as close as 60 miles or as far as 200 miles from shore.
"The perception at the time was the ocean is vast, it would absorb it," said Craig Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group in Kentucky, a grass-roots citizen group. "Certainly, it is insane in retrospect they would do it."
"It would be inevitable, I assume, all of this will be released into the ocean at some point or another," said Williams, who has fought Army plans to incinerate some of the 44 million pounds of chemical weapons the country now has stockpiled. "I don't think anyone knows for sure the true danger. It's just a matter of opinion. You can say, 'It's going to kill everyone,' or you can say, 'It's not a problem.' The truth is somewhere in between."
Based on the information available, the Army presumes most of the weapons are in very deep water and are unlikely to jeopardize divers or commercial fishing operations that dredge the ocean bottom.
John Chatterton doesn't believe that.
"I don't think it all is where they say it is," said Chatterton, a 25-year veteran diver who searches for undiscovered shipwrecks as host of the History Channel's "Deep Sea Detectives." "I've found a lot of stuff where it's not supposed to be. Absolutely, positively, it is not a guarantee it is there [in deep water]."
Chemical weapons were dumped long before electronic navigation systems were invented. Their nautical locations are based on the word of ship captains, who surely wanted to ditch their cargo quickly and, Chatterton suspects, probably cut corners.
"The guys who were doing this were scared of this stuff. They were well-motivated to get rid of this stuff as fast as they could," Chatterton said. "So they could take it all the way out there or else they could say, 'This is good enough,' and be back in port in three hours. I know what they did. It's mariner nature."
State officials in the dark
One of the first of the now-identified dump zones created at the end of World War II was also one of the largest.
The Army dubbed it Disposal Site Baker.
The Army has only the vaguest idea where it is on the ocean floor somewhere off Charleston, S.C., according to the most specific of surviving records.
"I have never had any information to suggest this was done," said Charles Farmer, a marine biologist who has worked for South Carolina's Department of Natural Resources for almost 40 years. "I would say this is not well-known to us at all. This is something that is new, at least to me. It's incredible some of the things we've managed to do."
The first documented dump off that state took place in March 1946 when four railroad cars full of mustard gas bombs and mines were tossed over the side of the USS Diamond Head, an ammunition ship.
Several months later, an estimated 23 barges full of German-produced nerve gas bombs and U.S.-made Lewisite bombs were dumped in the same location. Lewisite is a blister agent chemically akin to mustard agent. A single barge carried up to 350 tons.
"If we don't have any idea of depths of water or location, hell, they could be anywhere," Farmer said. "As we have more and more activity and more and more development off the coast, I hope this was buried in 6,000 feet of water or a lot of this stuff is going to come back to haunt us."
There is one indication those weapons were dumped in relatively shallow water: Army records show that many of those 23 slow-moving barges were unloaded in one-day, out-and-back operations.
The records leave no doubt that other chemical weapons were dumped close to shore:
In 1944, at least 16,000 mustard-filled 100-pound bombs were unloaded off the coast of Hawaii in deep water only five miles from shore.
Several mustard gas bombs fell into the Mississippi River near Braithwaite, La., in 1945 and have never been found.
A reported 124 leaking German mustard gas bombs were tossed in the Gulf of Mexico off Horn Island in Mississippi in 1946 from a barge that returned to port a few hours later. The island is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, a popular vacation and fishing destination.
A 1947 dump site in the Aleutian Islands, part of Alaska, is only 12 miles from a harbor.
Dump Sites Moved North
By the 1950s, the Army shifted much of its chemical dump operations north to the Virginia-Maryland border and into deeper water.
In 1957 the Army dumped 48 tons of Lewisite off the coast of Virginia Beach in 12,600 feet of water.
Three more dump zones were created more than 100 miles off the coastline between Chincoteague, Va., and Assateague, Md., tourist spots known for their unsullied beaches and populations of wild horses.
Dumped there in roughly 2,000 feet of water were at least 77,000 mustard-filled mortar shells, 5,000 white phosphorous munitions, 1,500 one-ton canisters of Lewisite and 800 55-gallon barrels of military radioactive waste.
It could not be determined what kind of radioactive waste was dumped. But there is one indication it could be highly dangerous nuclear waste with a half-life of thousands of years.
National Archive records of the Army's secretive chemical weapons escort unit, reviewed by the Daily Press, show numerous shipments in the 1950s between a laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., other Army bases with chemical weapons slated for sea disposal, and the Yuma Testing Station in Arizona.
Oak Ridge was where thermonuclear weapons were being developed at the time. Yuma was a military test ground for weapons in development. Records show a shipment on March 7, 1953, was of 35,000 pounds of unidentified "classified materials." The Army apparently stopped dumping radioactive waste in the late 1960s, the records show, when chemical weapons disposal operations again headed north in the Atlantic.
Dumping off Jersey Coast
Two ships full of the most potent of all nerve gases, known as VX, were scuttled in 6,000 feet of water many miles off Atlantic City as part of Operation CHASE.
CHASE was Pentagon shorthand for Cut Holes And Sink 'Em.
The nerve gas was in rockets that were encased in concrete before the ships were scuttled.
The Army desperately wanted to get rid of these particular weapons. They also contained jet fuel to propel the rockets. The fuel had a tendency to "auto-ignite," or spontaneously explode.
The ships - the SS Corporal Eric G. Gibson and SS Mormactern - remain a potential danger. Although the rockets were encased in concrete, scientists don't know how quickly concrete breaks down from water pressure at such depths.
A third ship that was scuttled nearby is no longer a hazard: It blew up on its way to the ocean floor on Aug. 7, 1968.
That ship, the SS Richardson, was filled with conventional, high-explosive weapons and 3,500 one-ton containers of mustard agent mixed with water. It was on its way to the bottom in 7,800 feet of water when a chain-reaction explosion went off, presumably caused by water pressure on one of the weapons that set off the rest.
"This is really quite disturbing," said U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., who has been fighting Army plans to dump chemically neutralized nerve gas in the Delaware River. "I did not know of any of this. It's a very serious problem that state officials haven't been told."
Not on Any Maps
Boaters, divers, fishermen and commercial seafood trawlers have no way to steer clear of the dump sites.
That's because the Army has put only one of its 26 known chemical weapons dumps on nautical charts, according to records kept by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
The federal agency in charge of undersea cable-laying operations, as well as gas and oil ventures, has only a vague idea of where chemical weapons were thrown into the ocean, said spokesman Gary Strasburg.
That agency, Minerals Management Service, knows only what the Army has revealed to the agency: that chemical weapons were dumped at sea and that some are somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico and at a location somewhere off the coast of South Carolina, agency records show.
The impact of dumping operations has never been studied. Few scientists knew it was done, so studies of the decline in sea life over the years has never focused on the possibility of leaking chemical weapons.
Commercial fishing operations, as well as scallop and clam trawlers, have been forced to go farther and farther from shore over the last 25 years because sea life has thinned for unknown reasons. Some scallopers now dredge in up to 400 feet of water, which is more than 100 miles from the shore in some East Coast locations.
The bottom-dwelling cod population in the Northern Atlantic has been decimated.
Another Cause of Deaths?
Hundreds of bottlenose dolphins mysteriously washed up on Virginia and New Jersey shores in 1987. They died with massive, never-explained skin blisters that resembled mustard gas burns on humans.
Federal marine scientists ultimately attributed the unprecedented number of dolphin deaths to a combination of morbillivirus related to distemper in dogs and potent vibrio bacteria from industrial pollutants.
That combination has killed other marine mammals over the years. But none of them has ever been found with their skin partially peeling off.
One marine mammal specialist who suspects leaking chemical weapons killed the dolphins met with Army officials and was told dumping had been done but was assured the weapons were unloaded in water too deep to harm the coastal-living creatures.
"You'd see the photos and you'd say, 'Man, this animal was burned by something,"' said Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, N.J. He said "it is a very good possibility" leaking chemical weapons killed the dolphins.
"It'd be nice to see the Army go down there and investigate, but nobody wants to open that book, it seems," Schoelkopf said. "You'd think they'd want to go look at those sites and say once and for all this isn't a problem. The amazing thing is they are not being monitored."
The Army also wondered if its chemical weapons were responsible for the dolphin deaths and was preparing to investigate some dump zones. The project was scrapped when the deaths were attributed to the virus and bacteria, said the Army's Brankowitz.
Little or No Monitoring
Over the decades, the Army has conducted environmental tests on only four of its dump sites, and none since 1975.
Some of the last tests the Army conducted were on the nerve gas-filled ships off the coast of New Jersey, and they found no evidence the weapons had leaked, Brankowitz said.
He said that leads the Army to presume the pressure on the weapons as they sank to the bottom crushed the shells and squirted their deadly contents onto the seabed, where they long ago broke down into their non-lethal chemical components.
That may be wishful thinking, according to some scientists.
Shells filled with chemical weapons are more likely to slowly leak over time than to be crushed while sinking, said Peter Brewer, a marine scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.
Regardless, he said, he considers the dangers of leaking chemical weapons in deep-water sites to be low.
He noted that the only Army chemical weapons dump site on nautical charts - the wreck of the SS William Ralston, which was scuttled 117 miles off the coast of San Francisco in the 1950s - has not been found to be leaking, although he said scientists have monitored it only "from a distance."
Not far from that wreck, scientists have determined that drums of radioactive waste dumped by industry in the 1950s have so corroded they now are paper-thin with holes in some of them, said Richard Charter, a California environmentalist with Environmental Defense.
He said he fears recent congressional approval of offshore gas and oil exploration off the East and West coasts permitted through last year's lifting of a 22-year-old moratorium could release the chemical agents from their containers.
"It certainly is within the realm of possibility," he said. "This is an invasive activity."
Seismic exploration is conducted by setting off massive air guns on the ocean surface and measuring the blasts when they bounce off the ocean floor. Such exploration, and drilling operations, have been conducted for decades in the Gulf of Mexico without releasing chemical warfare agents dumped by the Army in that body of water.
Overseas, scientists who monitor chemical weapons dump sites off the coasts of other countries have identified an unmistakable problem in the Skagerrak Straits, a narrow but deep body of water that separates Norway and Denmark.
In 2002, Norwegian scientists sent a deep-diving, remote-operated vehicle to investigate four ships full of captured German chemical weapons. The U.S. and British military scuttled them after World War II in roughly 2,000 feet of water.
The Norwegians discovered the sunken ships remain intact. Some of the shells had leaked. Others were slowly corroding. That revealed a problem that could last hundreds of years, the scientists concluded.
Soil sediment showed high levels of arsenic, a component of some of the chemical weapons. Arsenic is bioaccumulative. This means bottom-feeding shellfish are likely to be contaminated and pass arsenic up the food chain to accumulate in humans who eat them, the scientists discovered.
Also worrisome: Nets from fishing trawlers were found tangled on some of the weapons-filled wrecks.
"It might be possible to get chemical ammunition in the nets, which could then be brought up to the surface and poison fishermen," the scientists wrote in a report on the expedition. "It is also a possibility that fishing equipment could damage the wrecks and expose the chemical ammunition to the water, increasing the release of the agents to the environment."
While the Army may not have known better at the time, it is obligated to at least assess the danger the dump sites pose today, said Lenny Siegel, executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, who has specialized in chemical weapons issues.
"If no one does a study looking for three-legged fish, how do they know it's not a problem?" he asked. "My guess is the risks are remote in most cases, but I think you have to at least evaluate the risk. They have to take continuing responsibility.
"They need to see if there is an impact on the food chain. If there is, you have to warn people. If so, they have to do something with them."
MONDAY: After World War II, the Army secretly dumped its overseas chemical weapons stockpiles off the shores of more than a dozen other countries. One scientist calls them a "disaster looming."
John Bull is a reporter for the Daily Press of Newport News, Va., a Tribune Publishing newspaper.