Munitions Dumping at Sea


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It is no secret that the U.S. military has used the ocean as trashcan for munitions in the past. Peter discussed at the Old DSN how federal lawmakers were pressing the US Army to reveal everything it knows about a massive international program to dump chemical weapons off homeland and foreign shores. “The Army now admits that it secretly dumped 64 million pounds of nerve and mustard agents 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.” Brian pointed me to the Daily Press’s in depth coverage of this whole issue. Registration is free and only takes a minute or two and is extremely worthwhile. Included at the site are maps of disposal sites (downloadable as pdfs), stories, descriptions of items dumped including nerve and musturd gas, and rather depressing pictures some are below the fold (all from Daily Press).

Hundreds of dolphins washed ashore in Virginia and New Jersey shorelines in 1987 with burns similar to mustard gas exposure. One marine-mammal specialist suspects Army-dumped chemical weapons killed them. (Photo courtesy of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in New Jersey)

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The SS William Ralston filled with 301,000 mustard gas bombs and 1,500 1-ton canisters of Lewsite — sinks in the Pacific off San Fransico in 1958 (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

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Dr. M (1629 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, created to facilitate research to address fundamental questions in evolutionary science. He has conducted deep-sea research for 11 years and published over 40 papers in the area. He has participated in dozens of expeditions taking him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses mainly on marine systems and particularly the biology of body size, biodiversity, and energy flow. He focuses often on deep-sea systems as a natural test of the consequences of energy limitation on biological systems. He is the author and chief editor of Deep-Sea News, a popular deep-sea themed blog, rated the number one ocean blog on the web and winner of numerous awards. Craig’s popular writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.





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90 comments on “Munitions Dumping at Sea
  1. Having done my graduate work in Hampton Roads, I know that the Daily Press has its moments, but this is fantastic work. Thanks for the post.

    Scalloping off Virginia and Maryland, you get all sorts of strange military hardware in your gear — for example, I have a full Navy flight harness from one of those trips hanging in my office. (As the pilot was missing, presumably he got back…) It’s mostly the Europeans that are fishing in deeper waters these days, in part because there’s not that much fisheries production left over there. Hence, it’s likely that the EC will have to address this issue first, especially given our “anti-proactive” U.S. Department of Defense these days.

  2. great post… makes me want to smack my forehead in disbelief over the ignorance… same sort of thing though in my own back yard here in san francisco…

    for thirty years, a 365 square mile area around the farallon islands (27 miles outside the golden gate) served as the nation’s primary nuclear waste dumping ground… this area is now the farallon islands national marine sanctuary… from 1945 to 1970, when nuclear dumping at sea was prohibited, an estimated 47,500 barrels of radioactive debris from nuclear labs such as lawrence livermore labs were dumped in the area…

    ships irradiated in the bikini atoll nuclear bomb tests of the 1940’s and ’50’s were sunk off the islands (including the aircraft carrier Independence), along with numerous undocumented materials… the extent of contamination in the area has not yet been fully investigated though side scan sonar from the late 90’s identified close to 60,000 barrels scattered across the seafloor around the islands and near the edge of the continental shelf….

  3. Wow! I registered and am waiting for further instructions so I might get the pdf format. I am apalled at what our military intelligence, isn’t that an oxymoron, has done. No surprise that they are clueless! Thanks for the post and the info. Whgat could the general public do in a matter such as this?

  4. CR McClain, I would think so too. But I was generally caught off-guard by this story. Maybe we’re not as informed as we would like to be.

  5. Well, looking at the concentrations off the east coast I wonders what would happen if someone set off a nuke in the middle of it? All that contaminated steam lifting and getting blown onshore…

    As a west coast troller we’ve been aware of some of our local dumps. We take it personally and it’s near the top of a long list of beefs with the feds.

    I’m glad to see another really good article on it show up. Excellent map BTW. Thanks.

  6. Tuesday, May 15, 2007 – 12:00 AM
    Beach bombs: World War I munitions force closure of popular Jersey shore

    By WAYNE PARRY
    The Associated Press

    SURF CITY, N.J. � The Army Corps of Engineers has removed World War I-era military munitions discovered on two Jersey Shore beaches, and officials expect the sand and surf will be ready for Memorial Day crowds.

    The material was dumped at sea by the military decades ago, where it sat until it was sucked off the ocean floor and shot through a dredge pipe up onto the sand as part of a beach replenishment project over the winter on Long Beach Island.

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/cgi-bin/PrintStory.pl?document_id=2003708034&zsection_id=268448417&slug=webbeachmunitions15&date=20070515

  7. Surf City, NJ — where I live. After cleanup new rules state that you cannot dig below 4′-0″ and cannot use metal detectors. The munitions came from a beach replenishment operation that dredged the coastline for sand. The 4′-0″ digging limit leaves me to believe that the munitions were only cleaned out of the sand to that level.

  8. There seems to be no problem with terrorists picking some of this stuff off the bottom and bringing it onshore.

  9. I’ve been following the Surf City story, too — my family is planning to vacation there this summer! These munitions are mixed in with the replenished sand like raisins in a loaf of raisin bread. They will turn up on the beach after every big storm, so this is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

  10. Is there any reason to believe the military is telling the truth about the quantity of these poisons they’ve dumped in our seas? In light of their propensity, nay, compulsion to lie, I would estimate you could double or triple the “official” estimates.

  11. This kind of information makes me cringe. Was there ever a species that was so abyssmally incompetent at managing its own environment? Is there any other species that would do this kind of damage to its own habitat?

    The horrible and irresponsible things we do to the other species that share our living space are a testament that we are not a mature race, that we are merely savages with guns. The west is -not one- iota better than a rebel in the random African country of your choice who believes that he will gain the strength of his slain enemy if he eats his heart/brain. The west is on that exact same level, there is no difference between us. We are all cavemen and on a fundamental level we really haven’t got the slightest idea of what we’re doing.

    Where is Carl Sagan when you need him?

  12. The USA isn’t the only country to dump munitions at sea. One rather famous UK example is Beaufort’s Dyke, UK’s undersea ‘ticking timebombs’.

    Concurrently with the laying of an undersea gas pipeline in the area a large number of “phosphorous devices” were found washed ashore (mostly in Scotland, some in Northern Ireland). Scotland’s Fisheries Research Services looked into the matter: Surveys of the Beaufort’s Dyke explosives disposal site, November 1995 – July 1996 final report.

  13. I agree with sailorman that we need to be cautious of the reported total amount and whether the Army (and other branches) have fully disclosed the actual totals.

  14. No this is most assuredly not common knowledge. Makes me sick and fucking enraged actually. It’s like fucking rednecks who think the world is one giant toilet/trashbag for their own use. Maybe our species deserves a mass extinction event. Goddamn!

  15. Listen, it’s not that big of a deal. The Military has better things to do than care about the environment. Our business is big guns and big tits. If a whale or two gets in our way, do you really think we’re going to lose sleep at night?

  16. I’m starting to get outraged at the ‘outrage’. All the intellectual ‘head-smacking in disbelief’ (from Rick, above). Yes, the article sounds worrisome (Phosgene and cyanide for gods sake!). But let’s get straight here: You’re not REALLY bothered, are you? Ask yourself – look in the mirror and ask your white, aging, computerhead Sopranos-watching self: “What do I care? If I cared a whit, would I do something? Since I’m not doing a goddamn thing, doesn’t this prove I don’t care in the slightest?”

    Look folks, wring your hands, read doom blogs, shiver about the science. But we live in a country where the government serves us, and it’s on YOU to put the pigs in and out of office (Orwell). Since you’re not doing anything for the last 6 years, shut up – you just depress me.

  17. Two professional acquaintances of mine worked for a while as tug captains in San Francisco. The job they were on had them towing hopper barges full of the dredge spoils from the Oakland/Alameda ship channel and basin.

    They described to me unusually detailed procedures about how they dumped the dredge spoils. With utmost precision and government oversight, they would tow the barge offshore to a specific position a few miles west of the Farallone Islands. The bow and stern of the barge each had a GPS receiver that also transmitted their respective position to the pilothouse of the barge. When the door of the barge opened and released the spoils all kinds of data was recorded in a black box device. A surveyor would download data from the box on a regular basis.

    Two years later I took a temporary job as 2nd mate on a research vessel based in Northern California. The scientific guests on board were from the DOD (Army, if I remember correctly).
    The project took about four weeks and I came to learn from the guests on board the direct connection between our mission and that of the tug operators as described above.

    Sometime in the 1960’s, a San Francisco based commercial fishing boat was in this area and brought on board a steel drum that, as it turns out, contained radioactive waste. The story became public, the fishermen died and the Army was identified as responsible. Mysteriously, no real documentation was ever produced as to what had been dumped. Eventually some determination of what, how much and where was made. As I remember (my involvement was in 2002) it was several thousand drums of the 55 gallon hazmat type. They contained everything from contaminated clothing, tools and materials used to work in radioactive environments; to more potent forms of radioactive waste.

    In the 1980’s a plan was hatched to try and bury the area of the offshore dump in the mud and silt that came from dredging projects in greater San Francisco Bay (two birds/one stone). This explained the pain and expense taken by tug operators while dumping the barge contents.

    Our mission on the research vessel was an annual contract for 50 years (renewable, fantastic in ensuring the viability of an academic based research vessel) to take hundreds of sediment samples from this area. We worked a specific grid with specific positions for each sample. It took about a month and would be repeated each year in order to monitor the intended buildup of sediment on top of several thousand steel drums that were over 3,000 feet underwater.

    Some random thoughts that have occurred to me about this: hydraulic pressure exerted on these containers at 3000+ foot depth. Depending on currents, the mud and silt traveling down from the barge is going to disperse mightily while drifting down for 3000 feet; how deep do they hope to bury this stuff? Is the Monterrey Bay Marine Sanctuary monitoring radiation levels (Dr. McClain)? I still live, work, surf, dive and fish this coastline. It always remains a little creepy knowing what little I know about what is out there.

  18. Farallones: a good series covering that area:

    http://www.sfweekly.com/2001-05-09/news/fallout/

    I recall reading speculation years ago, in print somewhere, that the agricultural land trust (development-free zone) north of San Francisco along the Marin coast owes its pristine emptiness to the fact that the developers, who coveted it in the 1950s, learned that’s where the dump site contents will wash up eventually, and liability concerns put them off.

    Who knows?

  19. I am 72 years old and these revelations are not new. All kinds of stuff was dumped there and everyone knew it. The place was called the acid waters 65 miles off Long Island’s coast.

    People just didn’t know what to do with these materials. Nuclear waste was very dangerious. The Newspapers even had pictures dumping the stuff.

    That’s where New York City was dumping garbage. Which attracted great scools of fish. All the party boats went there to fish.

    All the large stripped bass were contminated with Mercury. How are they going to ever clean up the oceans is beyond me? I fought my whole life against polution. The problem is too many stood by while and the practices continued.

    People were just uninformed, in the 40 many did’t have telephones. Many lived on farms, farms had thir own dumps back in the woods.

    People are too ocuppied and tired when they come home from work. they have little time for protest. Its something that you quickly burn out from.

    The young have to get fired up about the carelessness of past decades after all they will inherit it all.

  20. for the record, i’m a “deadwood” and formerly “six feet under” watching white, aging, computerhead… yeesh, if your going to go all ad hominem, at least do your homework…

  21. Why he hell is this entry marked “industry”? Even when the State does something grossly evil you lefty whackjobs can’t help yourself and have to blame someone else. Unbelievable.

  22. Interesting about the dredgings covering the barrels at Farallones. Brilliant in its sheer evil. As far as I know there is no monitoring of radiation levels in the sanctuary. Although I no DDT levels can still be found in the sediment.

    The industry label is for pure convenience so relax. I didn’t have a government category set up. I can’t believe “some righty whackjob” finds something so benign to pick at. Even when there is nothing to really argue you can’t help yourself and have to find something to be mad at.

  23. I wondered the same thing. I was told by a reader of the great website that had compiled all the information into a single website. Very thorough and very informative. However, none of it is necessarily current news, i.e. just breaking. We here at DSN have covered this in the past. I think it spread through the internet because most people were unaware of this all.

  24. JER wrote:

    we live in a country where the government serves us

    No rational American who has been awake during the past few years could possibly believe that statement, so why repeat such a blatant lie?

  25. About thirty years ago, I worked for a time in Bodega Bay. I got to know the local fishermen who trolled the waters from around San Francisco to Oregon. They fished for just about everything, from herring to salmon (depending on the time of year), some bottom fishing (ling cod and cabazone) and laying out crab traps in between.

    One night a couple of them got to talking about the Farallons, and the leaking barrels of radioactive waste that they said was common knowledge among the fishing community of the north bay. They said that they regularly pulled up “giant mutant sponges” when they fished the area.

    I had a hard time eating local fish after that.

    At the time I recall thinking “this is what fish tales” is all about – I hadn’t heard or read anything else in the news about it. It’s only recently did I come across this.

  26. Hi there is a link to this site from this popular site: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info This is why you have suddenly received lots of interest probably. There are other websites that then follow the info on this site so it spreads……This article link has only just been put up on the site. I’ll put the link again in case thw one above does not work…

  27. Hello – just wanted to say how interesting I found this piece – I’ll be linking to it as soon as I can. I had a vague awareness of the issue, but didn’t realise it had been happening on such a large scale.

  28. I know from around 1992 about the problems trawlers working out of Boston area have had with bringing up all kinds of nasty, contaminated crap. I think it has been a kind of “open secret” amongst boats using nets all around the Atlantic coast, but although I’ve seen occasional news stories about it, the problem just seems too out of reach for most people, I think. There is probably also a perception of, “well, the dumping is done, what are we supposed to do about it?” which lends itself well to general public apathy.

    Which of course brings up the big important question: What CAN we do about it? Getting the kind of resources needed for any kind of cleanup seems rather less likely than a permanently manned base on Mars within my lifetime.

  29. If you are wondering about all the hits to this site, you were linked today from Crooks and Liars. That award winning blog gets the most traffic of any news blog on the net.

    Great article. I knew that some dumping had taken place. I was not aware of the extent nor the hazard it poses.

  30. And we’re worried about terrorists that will strike from other nations…

    Look in the mirror. We’ve met the enemy, and he is us!

  31. Another thing to consider: Deep Well Injection!

    I live near Dow Chemical’s home office on Michigan and they have been pumping millions of gallons of ‘unclassified’ wastes down into ‘deep wells’ under our feet, homes, schools AND lakes for nearly a century…

    ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ always struck me as a stupid saying…

    We already have ruined this planet. We’re just waiting for the watress to give us the bill…

  32. We have those nice so called “clean” barrels in Lake Superior also. I still wonder what is in them.

  33. Here in central Arizona, well over a century of copper mining (and some silver and gold) used arsenic in the smelting process. It’s finally trickled down to the water table.

    Waters are contaminated everywhere, not just the ocean, and not only from military SNAFUs and FUBARs.

  34. JER #25 sounds to be very young. Getting the scoundrels out of Office is no easy task. They are part of and/or agents for the elite wealthy ruling class that manages everything. They have had a long time to rig the political game. Short of a French style revolution, consider the following:

    Unfortunately, history teaches that incumbency almost guarantees reelection. Another sad truth is that tenure in office almost invariably corrupts; there are always well resourced entities standing by to achieve this purpose.

    So then, how do we get control of the present detrimental undemocratic system, how do we develop a strategy so simple that every one can use it while the strategy itself remains immune to constraints by powerful interests.

    There is no dearth of talented people who are willing to serve one term in public office and then return to their professions. It is well known that it is the staffs of congressman and senators who actually do the work. Many elected officials do not even bother to read legislation that they must vote on. It is unimaginable that one-term members of congress can be anymore destructive to the democratic process then the career politicians have proven to be.

    Legislators are unlikely to approve legislation that would limit terms of office. And, if such a law were to pass, the Supreme Court is likely to strike it down. Remember that this is the court that has determined that money is speech. Remarkably, it would seem, the court believes those with the most resources should have the most influence in elections and the legislative process.

    Despite the enormous resources leveraged against the public by special interests, there is a remedy to the costly corruption represented by the duopoly Democrat/Republican party. Frankly, I am amazed that those interested in authentic democracy have not embraced the idea before.

    If one believes in participatory democracy, it follows that they must also believe that as many citizens as possible should have the opportunity to serve in public office. My idea does not require time or resources. There are no financial contributions to be made no meetings to attend no speeches to endure. A citizen need only make the following pledge to himself then herald what he has done to others. The formation of a One Term and Out political party would also help impede the current pay-to-play governmental system.

    The Pledge:

    �With the recognition that there are huge numbers of intelligent, talented and qualified citizens who are prepared to limit their public service to one term, I hereby pledge that I will not vote a second term for any United States Senator or United States Congressman.�

    Lew Walsh ([email protected])

  35. All the East Coast dumps sites shown here in this chart are greater than 2000 fathoms depth……That’s down there! I’d be surprised if those barrels haven’t collapsed from the pressure and salt corrosion years ago. At any rate I don’t believe that stuff would still be of much use to any terrorists, if they could get too it, which they can’t. But it’s interesting to find out about our government hiding things from us. Are you surprized? I’m not. On the subject of the New Jersey Beach bombs, that stuff could be from a sunken trasnport ship. Waters along the eastern coast, close to shore, are littered with WW1 and WW2 wrecks, some torpedoed and some sunk after the war. There is some great reference books available in the local dive shops about these wrecks, a lot of them you can still dive on and find relics. Jerry Gentile is the author of them, I think.
    Another interesting tid bit is about a couple wrecks out in the chesapeake bay and about Bloodsworth Island in the bay. The navy used both for bombing practice for years, the one boat, American Mariner is still above the water and riddled with holes. I yanked a unexploded missle up with my anchor one night when we were leaving the site after fishing. That crap will make your shorts shrink!

  36. BBC article on ammunition dumped in Beaufort Dyke here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4032629.stm

    Sailed over it many times last year, and never lingered. Other sailors corroborated the 2-3 explosions a month claim. Craig, your Ph.D. supervisor was right – lots of ordnance in the North Sea. Plenty of wrecks from both wars, lots of ditched bombs and ammo dumping grounds, marked on Admiralty charts. Living near a fishing port I know for a fact that trawlermen will cut a netted bomb, shell or mine free if they can rather than call the bomb disposal people. I suppose in 1945-6 the stuff had to go somewhere. In the 80’s we’d have just sold it it Iraq. Hurrah!

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