Vast Chemical Dumping Found at Sea

Newport News Daily Press

A clam-dredging operation off the coast of New Jersey last summer 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 the shell, and they found it was filled with mustard gas in solid form. Three of the technicians were injured.

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. Although it has long been known that some chemical weapons were dumped in the ocean, records obtained by the Daily Press show that the previously classified weapons-dumping program was far more extensive than had been suspected.


The Army now admits it secretly dumped 64 million pounds of nerve and mustard gas agent in the sea, along with 400,000 chemical-filled bombs, landmines 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 virtually ring the country, concealed off the coast of at least 11 states -- six on the East Coast, two on the Gulf Coast, and 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 a few of its 26 dump zones, but not in the last 30 years.

* The Army can’t say exactly where all of the weapons were dumped from World War II to 1970. Army records are sketchy or missing, or were destroyed.

* More dumpsites probably exist. The Army hasn’t reviewed WW I-era records, 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,” he said. “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 forms a concentrated, encrusted gel in seawater that lasts for at least five years.

Sea-dumped chemical weapons may be slowly leaking from decades of saltwater corrosion, resulting in a time-delayed release of deadly chemicals and an unforeseeable environmental impact.

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 chemical weapons off the U.S. coast. Congress banned the practice in 1972. Three years later, the U.S. 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 as part of the newspaper’s investigation of offshore dumping.

“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 citizens group. “Certainly, it is insane in retrospect they would do it.”

Based on the information available, the Army presumes most of the weapons are in very deep water and unlikely to jeopardize divers or commercial fishing operations that dredge the ocean bottom. But boaters, divers, fishermen and commercial seafood trawlers have no way to steer clear of the dumpsites, 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 impact of the chemical dumping has never been studied. Few scientists knew it was done, so studies of the decline in sea life have never focused on the possibility of leaking chemical weapons, officials said.