Huge Chemical And Weapon Dump Sites Revealed In Oceans
By John Bull
As World War II drew to a close, the US Army was faced with scant storage space in ordnance depots at home and massive chemical weapons stockpiles overseas.
The solution: Dump the weapons off the coast of whatever country they were in.
The result: US-made weapons of mass destruction litter the coasts of more than 10 countries including Italy, France, India, Australia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Japan, Denmark and Norway, and the French territory of New Caledonia, according to a 2001 Army report recently released to the Daily Press of Newport News, Va.
The chemical weapons remain there to this day. They are extremely dangerous.
Some of them have washed up on shore or have been dredged up by fishermen. At least 200 people have been seriously injured over the years.
The Army now admits it secretly dumped at least 64 million pounds of chemical warfare agents as well as more than 400,000 mustard gas- filled bombs and rockets off the US coastline, and much more than that off the coasts of other countries, a Daily Press investigation has found.
The Army can't say where all the dump sites are. There may be more.
The Army is missing years of records on where it secretly dumped surplus chemical weapons from the close of World War II until 1970, when the practice was halted. It has not reviewed records of post- World War I at-sea chemical weapons dumping, but knows the practice was commonplace at the time.
In addition to at least 26 dump sites off the American coast, more than 30 US-created chemical weapons dump sites are scattered throughout the world's oceans off the coasts of other countries, according to the newly released Army report. The report was created by the chemical weapon historical research and response team at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
''It's a disaster looming, a time bomb, say,'' said Gert Harigel, a physicist in Geneva, Switzerland, who has been active in international chemical weapons issues. ''The scientific community knows very little about it. It scares me a lot.''
The United States is not legally bound to do anything about the dangers it created in the world's oceans, whether from its own weapons it dumped or those of captured enemy stockpiles.
A 1975 treaty signed by the United States prohibits ocean dumping of chemical munitions. But it does not address dump zones created before the treaty was signed.
And the overseas chemical dump sites are presumed to be in international waters, inoculating the US government from legal responsibility, said Peter Kaiser, spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons at The Hague in the Netherlands.
''Legally, nothing can be done,'' said Harigel, a member of the Geneva International Peace Research Institute. ''But from a humanitarian point of view, they need to be pressured to do something.''
At the least, Harigel said, the US government should monitor the chemical dump sites it created and spread warnings if environmental evidence shows they are leaking.
Other nations with dump sites
In recent years, the Army quietly has gone through decades-old classified records and identified five other countries where US chemical-laden bombs, rockets and grenades were thrown into the sea. The names of those countries remain classified, but records at the National Archives provide hints.
The Daily Press uncovered an Aug. 24, 1944, memo classified at the time as ''restricted'' that revealed in which other allied countries the United States kept stockpiles of chemical weapons during World War II.
Those countries include New Zealand, China, the former Soviet Union and unidentified ''Latin American countries.'' The United States used parts of Panama as chemical weapons bombing ranges for years. Other National Archives records detail two shipments of unidentified chemical weapons, totaling 20,000 pounds, in 1953 and 1954 from the United States to Fort Amador in Panama.
The Army says it informed the governments of those five unidentified countries in recent years of the dangers lurking off their coasts, but was asked by those governments not to release the information to the public.
Two summers ago, researchers for the New Zealand government searched US government records at the National Archives, seeking information on chemical weapons ocean dump sites, said archivist Tim Nenninger.
Harigel said residents of those unidentified countries should be told by someone, either their governments or the US. Army, of the potential dangers.
''Whether or not anything can be done at this point, the people there deserve to know,'' he said. ''The danger increases with time. The shells are more and more corroding. The fishermen can easily get this stuff into their nets and get seriously hurt.''
Scientists have determined the mustard agent damages DNA, causes cancer and survives for at least five years on the ocean floor in a concentrated gel. Nerve gas lasts at least six weeks when it is released into seawater, killing every organism it touches before breaking down into nonlethal component chemicals.
Chemical-filled munitions now on sea beds are slowly leaking, and more surely will as years pass, depending on the depth of the water, the thickness of the containers and water temperature, according to a 2004 study by Jiri Matousek, a Czech scientist.
The hazard of leaking shells probably will last for ''another tens to hundreds of years,'' he concluded. ''It is also without doubt that long-term monitoring at areas of concern is needed as a categorical imperative.''
The problem is so bad in the Baltic Sea that Denmark has covered portions of some shallow-water dump sites with concrete to contain leakage.
Other nations not told
The Army has known for decades of its overseas chemical weapons dumps, yet left other governments to discover and deal with the problem on their own.
Japan's problems from US chemical weapons dumping didn't come to light until a government inquiry in 1973, after more than 85 fishermen were injured by chemical warfare agents dumped by either US occupation forces or the Japanese military at the close of World War II.
It wasn't until 2003 that Australia discovered on its own that the US Army had dumped more than 60 million pounds of chemical weapons off Brisbane, and pinpointed precise quantities and nautical coordinates. The Australian government posted the area off-limits to mariners and released a well-publicized report on its findings.
The Canadian Department of National Defense has worked for three years to identify offshore chemical weapons dump sites created by either the US or Canadian military. Three have been found, and the Canadians believe the United States may have created one of them.
The well-publicized Warfare Agent Disposal project began after a Halifax area antiques dealer named Myles Kehoe discovered that the Canadian military had moved some of its post-World War II chemical munitions through Nova Scotia for disposal. When his fisherman father remembered hearing that the ordnance was loaded onto ships and dumped somewhere at sea, alarm bells went off in Kehoe's head.
''He laughed about it,'' Kehoe said. ''They did it all the time, he said.'' At Kehoe's insistent prodding, the Canadians have identified three chemical weapons dump sites in Canadian waters and are researching roughly 1,200 other underwater locations that their records show may be ordnance dumps.
Stockpile unaccounted for
The Canadian government believes the United States may have jettisoned chemical weapons roughly 100 miles off the coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, north of Washington state. The US Army says it has no record that was done, but won't rule it out.
''I won't say there's nothing there that belongs to us,'' said William Brankowitz, a deputy project manager in the US Army Chemical Materials Agency and a leading authority on the Army's chemical weapons dumping.
The United States had an 18-ton stockpile of chemical weapons in Alaska after World War II, National Archives records reveal. The Army doesn't know where it all went.
The two other chemical weapons dump sites in Canadian waters are off the coast of Sable Island and Nova Scotia, near the Grand Banks, one of the world's best fisheries, with one site spread out over at least 30 nautical miles. It is presumed to have been created by the Canadian government after World War II.
''Fisheries are dying. The sea bottom is going bare. It's terrible,'' Kehoe said. ''We are finding crab mutations that no one can explain. Cod are dying at their larval stage. Most of that stuff is starting to leach now'' from their steel containers into the sea.
Kehoe's campaign for information and action has spanned 13 years and is becoming increasingly frantic.
A few years ago, the US-based Hunt Oil Co. was granted a license by the Canadian government to conduct seismic testing for potential petroleum products off the coast of Nova Scotia.
''There is absolutely no scientific documentation on what effect oil exploration has on these dump sites,'' Kehoe noted. ''There is absolutely no research on it. The National Defense Department went public, on air, saying we don't know the impact of seismic testing on these sites.
''This nightmare is going to be happening to you over there. It's horrifying.''
170,000 tons to sea bottom
In the most publicized of all chemical weapons dumps, British and US forces loaded dozens of German ships with captured nerve and mustard gas from 1945 to 1947 and sank them in the Skagerrak strait. The wrecks are off the coasts of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and near the Danish island of Bornholm in the relatively shallow Baltic Sea.
It was called Operation Davy Jones Locker. An estimated 170,000 tons of German chemical weapons went to the bottom. Most, but not all, went into deep water.
Russia also dumped some if its chemical weapons stockpile in the ocean. So did Australia, not far from the Great Barrier Reef. And England dumped much of its stockpile so close to land in the North Sea that chemical ordnance routinely washes up on its shore to this day.
The United States' ocean dumping of chemical weapons stockpiles both at home and overseas made logistical sense at the end of World War II, and no one in those days had much environmental awareness.
At the time, US ordnance depots across the country were packed with war supplies, including a stockpile of 60 million gas masks, National Archive records show.
Room had to be made for chemical weapons still in production but not yet delivered, and there was little space to put overseas stockpiles if they were brought back to the United States.
By early 1945, a blizzard of memos out of the War Department demanded that ordnance depots reduce unnecessary stock by emptying and burying drums of chemical warfare agents and selling non-hazardous material to the public as war surplus, National Archives records show.
War surplus sales were so frenzied that in October 1945 a colonel in the Chemical Weapon Service issued a memo warning that bomb-packing crates must be better inspected before being sold. Buyers, it turned out, had discovered some of the crates still had bombs in them.
Sailors jeopardized en route
Besides having nowhere to put them, chemical weapons were dangerous to transport by ship and jeopardized sailors, the Army discovered. Several shipments back to the United States resulted in leaks.
Leak detection was unsophisticated at the time.
If nerve gas was shipped, crates of rabbits were placed on deck. If the rabbits died, the crew knew there was a serious problem.
Edward Aho, of Astoria, Ore., was on the SS Isaac Wise as it was loaded in spring 1946 with captured German mustard and phosgene gas bombs. During the trip from Antwerp, Belgium, to the former San Jacinto Ordnance Depot in Houston, 16 of the bombs leaked and at least five people were burned, declassified Army records show.
Aho said the only precaution taken before the ship sailed was to build wooden bulkheads against the steel skin of the ship, in the hope the wood would cushion the blow if the ship's movement dislodged the bombs.
Aho, 78, said he was sent into the ship's hold once to look for a leak, protected only by a gas mask and armed only with a primitive gas detection device that looked like a ''battery with a gauge on it.'' ''I'll never know if what [nervous system] problems I have [are] related. I'll never know,'' he said in a phone interview, declining to specify his health problems.
Those leaking bombs were destroyed in Texas. The rest of the bombs were taken by railcar to Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas. During the trip, more of them leaked. What happened to them after that is unclear from the sketchy Army records that still exist.
Over the decades, many fishermen overseas have been seriously injured after being exposed to US chemical weapons dumps created after World War II.
''Around the world, accidents have happened,'' said the Army's Brankowitz. ''Fortunately, there has been nothing I would call colossal or catastrophic accidents.''
Denmark's government estimates that chemical warfare agents dumped in the sea by either the United States or Britain have hurt 150 mariners and have been discovered washed up on shore. In 1984 alone, 11 Danish fishermen were burned by mustard gas while fishing in the Baltic Sea.
Crews of fishing boats off the Danish island of Bornholm routinely wear chemical protection suits when at sea near a known chemical weapons dump site. Vessels working other areas of the Baltic are required to keep gas masks and special medical kits on board.
The problem is so bad in the relatively shallow Baltic Sea that the seabed is surveyed every summer by Latvia, Russia and Finland to determine whether long-dumped chemical shells are leaking.
At least 52 Japanese were injured in 11 accidents at one of eight known US chemical ocean dumps, mostly of Japan's captured chemical weapons stockpiles. When the Japanese government publicized the locations of those dump areas in the 1970s, the number of injuries dropped.
Disclosure by Australia
In 1983, an Australian fishing trawler snagged a one-ton steel container of mustard agent dumped off the coast of Cape Moreton in Australia by the United States and pulled it to shore, according to a 2003 Australian government report. No one was injured.
The partially filled container was snared in relatively shallow water not far from where the US Army now admits it dumped an estimated 32,000 tons of mustard agent and toxic Lewisite in drums, and in hundreds of thousands of chemical-filled artillery shells.
It was the second time a trawler in that area pulled up a one-ton mustard gas container dumped by the United States. The first was on Jan. 17, 1970. A few years later, a similar, partially filled container washed up on shore. No one was injured in those two incidents.
In 2003, the Australian government created an in-depth report on what it calls chemical warfare agent dumps, identifying exact latitudes and longitudes of US- and Australian-created chemical weapons dumps. The information was released to the public and widely publicized in the news media there.
''The publication of this paper will, hopefully, prevent accidents occurring at the CWA dump sites where coordinates have been revealed,'' the report concludes. ''It will also, hopefully, encourage other governments to reveal locations of their CWA sea dump sites for the same purpose.''
That's something the United States has not fully done, and should do out of simple decency to its citizens and residents of other countries where the Army created chemical weapons hazards, said Harigel, of Switzerland.
''The government is not open to the public in the United States,'' he said. ''There should be pressure put on them.''
John Bull is a reporter for the Daily Press of Newport News, Va., a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
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