Today, questions remain as to exactly where those munitions are off the U.S. coastlines, what their condition might be, what dangers they might pose, and whether or not it makes sense to attempt to recover them for land-based disposal.
FORT WALTON BEACH — From the end of World War I until the early 1970s, the world's oceans, including the Gulf of Mexico, served as a dumping ground for the tangible reminders of armed conflicts — the bombs and other munitions which took up space and presented potential hazards at military bases around the country
Dumped from barges or sent to the bottom aboard scuttled ships, estimates are that millions of pounds of military munitions — unexploded 250-, 500- and 1,000-pound bombs, land mines, mustard gas and other chemical weapons, including munitions confiscated from Nazi Germany and elsewhere following World War II — were sunk off the eastern seaboard of the United States, around the Gulf of Mexico and off the coasts of the Hawaiian islands. Records of the dumped munitions, if kept at all, are scarce. Some likely are inaccurate. Some likely were destroyed.
Today, nearly a half-century from the 1970 U.S. ban on ocean dumping of chemical weapons, the 1972 U.S. Ocean Dumping Act and the 1975 London Convention, an international marine pollution treaty, questions remain as to exactly where those munitions are off the U.S. coastlines, what their condition might be, what dangers they might pose, and whether or not it makes sense to attempt to recover them for land-based disposal.
'A gap in our knowledge'
"This is kind of like one of the elephants in the room," says Niall Slowey, a Texas A&M geologic oceanographer who has done research on the dumping of munitions into the Gulf of Mexico.
Even with the records that are available, it's clear the "elephants" in the Gulf of Mexico are of considerable size. Here, from a 2007 report to Congress from the Congressional Research Service, is part of what is officially known about munitions dumped in the Gulf:
• In 1946, records show four munitions dumps — two in March, one in May and one in July — into unknown locations in the Gulf of Mexico. Those recorded dumps included at least 35 mustard bombs — records show one of the dumps was by a ship carrying an "unspecified quantity of mustard projectiles" — two of which were already leaking. Also reported dumped somewhere in the Gulf in 1946 were three German phosgene bombs.
• In February 1954, a barge of unknown size originating from Mobile, Alabama, dumped an unknown quantity of something called "riot control agent projectiles" somewhere in the Gulf.
• In January or February of 1955, according to the Congressional Research Service report, "'1 or 2 barges' of unspecified toxic munitions (quantity not specified)" also shipped from Mobile, wound up somewhere at the bottom of the Gulf.
In 1993, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, an independent federal government agency that operated from 1961 to 1999 and conducted studies and provided advice relating to arms control and related issues, published a report on chemical munitions dumping. According to that report, the military archivist at the Washington National Records Center told the ACDA that while records of chemical weapons storage at various military installations were supposed to have been shipped to the center, in many cases those records were never received.
Further complicating the availability of any records on munitions dumping, according to the ACDA report, was the 1950s destruction of 40,000 cubic feet of military records at the National Records Center, some of which presumably could have been records of dumped munitions. The records were destroyed, according to the ACDA report, to create additional storage space.
But even the existing records — some of which, Slowey points out, might be buried and all but invisible among mounds of other paper records from those days — might not accurately note where munitions were dumped in the Gulf other waters. According to Slowey and other sources, there is widespread suspicion that some of those munitions were "short-dumped," dropped into the water at locations other than any officially recorded dump site. Additionally, Slowey noted, there is the possibility that wave action, currents, storms and other dynamics along the ocean floor have moved munitions away from their original sites.
Slowey said there are any number of reasons to suspect that short-dumping is a reality of underwater munitions disposal, and that as a result many of those munitions might be closer to shore than expected, or might be encountered in unexpected locations.
"Maybe people didn't know what it was (their ship was dumping), or there's a storm, or it's Friday (and crews want to get back home quickly)," Slowey said, reeling off a list of reasons why munitions might not be where they are supposed to be.
Agreeing with Slowey is James Porter, an emeritus professor of ecology at the University of Georgia who spent 20 years researching the ecological effects of ocean-dumped munitions. According to Porter, logs from some vessels that dumped munitions that have been available over the years reveal that the vessels could not have traveled to the designated dump site and back in the time indicated on those logs.
Porter contends, though, that short-dumping is a result of vessel crew members knowing what they were carrying and wanting to get rid of it as soon as possible.
"I think there's a gap in our knowledge," said Slowey, who has come across the discarded munitions during his oceanographic research. Among Slowey's discoveries, he said, is that some munitions dumped into at least one of the established dumping areas in the Gulf of Mexico — there are seven such areas, he said, each covering 81 square miles — have migrated outside of those areas.
And not knowing exactly where munitions might be dumped in the Gulf isn't the only gap in knowledge, Slowey noted. While munitions were, at least reportedly, dumped without detonators attached, that doesn't necessarily mean they don't, or won't, pose any danger in the future. Munitions, especially torpedoes and mines, "become less stable over time," he said.
According to Slowey, ocean waters were an attractive dump site because military personnel and other government officials of the time, and even well into the 20th century, believed the discarded munitions would remain beyond the reach of human activity. But Slowey pointed out that those dumping decisions were made long before improved fishing techniques and aggressive oil and gas exploration made broad sections of the ocean depths subject to human enterprise and exploration.
"They didn't think of the 'long-termness' of it," Slowey said. Among the questions that either weren't asked or were ignored, Slowey said, included the consequences of any degradation of the metal drums in which some of the munitions were stored.
"I can imagine they're not thinking what it's going to be like years from now," Slowey said. Other questions apparently not considered, Slowey said, included, "What's the life span of this stuff? How will it react to seawater?"
Today, the consequences of thinking that ocean dumping would be an adequate means of disposing of munitions are at least sometimes evident. Gulf fishing vessels, particularly shrimp trawlers, "occasionally find munitions from one source or another," according to Slowey.
A former colleague of Slowey, the late Texas A&M oceanography professor William Bryant, worried that oil and gas exploration and extraction in the Gulf might one day catastrophically interact with dumped munitions. In a 2012 article on Phys.org, a science news website, Bryant said that when he first heard of the April 20, 2010, explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico,"My first thought (was) ... 'Oh my gosh, I wonder if some of the bombs down there are to blame.' "
For Porter, there are "a lot of unanswered questions" with regard to oil rigs and munitions dumps.
Slowey and Bryant have estimated that tens of millions of pounds of munitions, both chemical and conventional, were dumped in the Gulf. Porter contends the weight is much higher, possibly as much as one trillion pounds.
"We do know that it's vast amounts because we have both World War I, World War II and contemporary munitions that have been dumped there," Porter said. According to Porter, it was not only the military that dumped munitions into the Gulf of Mexico. Manufacturers, of which there were a number along the Gulf Coast, also dumped materials used to make those munitions into the Gulf's waters.
"I'm saying it's somewhere near a trillion pounds, if you count everything that's been dumped," he said.
'... Nobody wants to touch this'
In the wake of the 1972 ban on munitions dumping, little attention was paid to how much military materiel had been dumped in U.S. coastal waters. But the military, like other parts of the government and university researchers, has in recent years probed the issue. According to the Congressional Research Service, in 2001 the Army, the branch of the military charged with munitions disposal, reported on the dumping of chemical weapons. According to the Congressional Research Service report, the Army's assessment was that "the past disposal of chemical weapons in the ocean had been more common and widespread geographically than previously acknowledged."
In that 2001 assessment, the Army noted 32 instances of chemical weapons being dumped through 1970. And while the Congressional Research Service's 2007 report to Congress notes that the Army "had disclosed more information than previously available," issues regarding mitigation of any risks associated with the dumped munitions remained ticklish.
"Incomplete historical records significantly limit the ability to identify and assess the condition of these weapons," the report states, noting in turn that the lack of records means that "assessing the degree of potential risks is nearly impossible."
What is clear, though, according to the report, is that even if authorities knew where to find the discarded munitions, retrieving them would present a number of challenges. For instance, weapons casings could rupture during retrieval and release potentially toxic materials in the water. Or, the report notes, transporting recovered munitions to shore presents the possibility of the release of toxic materials in the air.
And, as both Slowey and the Congressional Research Service noted, if the locations of discarded munitions were accurately determined, it's possible that people or organizations intent on inflicting harm could recover them.
"(P)ublic disclosure of the location and types of weapons could present national security risks, in the event that individuals were to retrieve these weapons and use them for harmful purposes," the Congressional Research Service noted.
In the end, Slowey said, the tricky questions raised by any initiative to locate and deal with the munitions likely serve as a significant disincentive to address the issue.
"I could imagine nobody wants to touch this," he said.
Porter goes a step further. He contends there is a practical reason the government doesn't necessarily want to do much with dumped munitions.
"It's a liability issue," he said.
Once you find them, then what?
That's not to say, though, that there hasn't been any curiosity about dealing with munitions lurking in coastal waters. According to Porter, the Department of Defense has attempted to start assessing the quantity of munitions dumped in the ocean but hasn't been particularly forthcoming about the results, and much of the information has already been publicly available elsewhere.
The federal government has extensively studied two sites near the Hawaiian island of Oahu where munitions were discarded: Ordnance Reef, where munitions were dumped at depths between 60 and 160 feet, and the Hawai'i Undersea Military Munitions Assessment (HUMMA) site, where munitions are located at depths ranging from 900 feet to 1,800 feet.
Among the research done at Ordnance Reef was an Army initiative several years ago to test a remotely operated underwater munitions recovery system adapted from existing technology. As part of the initiative, attempts were made to recover 218 munitions, but only 80 were successfully recovered "because most of the items were cemented to the ocean floor by marine growth," according to a November 2016 DoD report.
At the HUMMA site, a 2015 study came up with the surprising observation that "some sea-disposed munitions (were) almost completely disintegrated while others of the same type look as if they have been recently sea-disposed."
The Department of Defense's own Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) continues to consider issues related to dealing with underwater munitions. In 2013, in what it called "an important milestone," SERDP used low-frequency sonar in the Gulf of Mexico to detect a number of items, including munitions, placed among rocks on the Gulf's sandy bottom.
Researchers were able to determine which of the items were munitions, prompting the conclusion that the "development of a sonar-based survey system would provide DoD with an efficient means of collecting accurate information about the location and identity of underwater munitions to support management or cleanup."
But other SERDP literature outlines the significant challenges in locating munitions. One SERDP document notes that dynamic conditions such as wave action and currents "can result in mobility of munitions, as well as repeated burial and scour (uncovering)."
And to Slowey's point that the exact condition of the munitions after years underwater is unclear, the SERDP document notes that "in some environments, corrosion and biofouling may affect their detection or remediation." SERDP goes on to note that ""(i)n most cases, the relative abundance of intact munitions and munitions-related debris, such as fragments, scrap, and remains of targets, are unknown."
The future: A question of harm
The Department of Defense's latest official word on the issue of munitions disposal in the Gulf of Mexico and other coastal waters came a little less than three years ago. In a final report to Congress titled "Research Related to Effect of Ocean Disposal of Munitions in U.S. Coastal Waters," the DoD contends that the best action to deal with underwater-disposed munitions likely is no action at all.
According to the report from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, the department's perspective is that "(f)rom an explosives safety perspective, DoD believes that it is best to leave sea-disposed munitions in place." Part of the reason for that is at least a little bit chilling, with the report noting that "the recovery of these munitions would likely result in a rapid release of munitions constituents that could cause more harm than would otherwise occur as the munitions continue to deteriorate over time."
But in that same document, the DoD concedes that sea-disposed munitions can, in some instances, present enough of a risk to justify some action. "If a sea-disposed munition is determined to pose an unacceptable risk to the public or critical assets," the report notes, "DoD dispatches explosives ordnance disposal personnel to prevent an accidental detonation."
In terms of immediate human impacts from discarded munitions, there are no clear indications that contaminants travel up the food chain, although adverse ecological effects on sea life near the munitions have been shown, according to Porter. "But whether that winds up on your plate, that work has not yet been done," he added.
The DoD report also indicates that the department will maintain an ongoing interest in ocean-dumped munitions, in that it "will continue targeted research to ... assist in locating sea-disposed munitions in dynamic environments (such as surf zones, the areas where waves break as they approach a beach) that can force munitions to the beach where they may pose an unacceptable risk to the public."