Barges often were piled high
with one-ton steel containers of mustard gas to be thrown into the ocean
in the 1940s and 1950s. More than a dozen such as this were unloaded off
the coast of South Carolina. U.S. Army photo
Weapons of mass destruction thrown into the sea years ago present danger
now - and the Army doesn't know where they all are
In the summer of 2004, a clam-dredging operation off New Jersey pulled up an
old artillery shell.
The long-submerged World War I-era explosive was filled with a black tarlike
Bomb disposal technicians from Dover Air Force Base, Del., were brought in
to dismantle it. Three of them were injured - one hospitalized with large pus-filled
blisters on an 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 finally ended
up on shore in the United States.
It's long been known that some chemical weapons went into the ocean, but records
obtained by the Daily Press show that the previously classified weapons-dumping
program was far more extensive than ever suspected.
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.
A Daily Press investigation also found:
These weapons of mass destruction virtually ring the country, concealed off
at least 11 states - six on the East Coast, two on the Gulf Coast, California,
Hawaii and Alaska. Few, if any, state officials have been informed of their
The chemical agents could pose a hazard for generations. The Army has examined
only a few of its 26 dump zones and none in the past 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 dumpsites likely exist. The Army hasn't reviewed World War 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 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 might 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 effect. 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 after World War II by the U.S. and British militaries.
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.
It seems unlikely that the weapons will begin to wash up on shore, but last
year's discovery that a mustard-gas-filled artillery shell was dumped off New
Jersey was ominous for several reasons:
It was the first ocean-dumped chemical weapon to somehow make its way to U.S.
It was pulled up with clams in relatively shallow water only 20 miles off Atlantic
City. The Army had no idea that chemical weapons were dumped in the area.
Most alarming: It was found intact in a residential driveway in Delaware.
It had survived, intact, after being dredged up and put through a crusher to
create cheap clamshell driveway fill sold throughout the Delmarva Peninsula.
DECADES OF DUMPING
In 1964, mustard gas canisters are pushed into the Atlantic Ocean off New Jersey. Millions of pounds were dumped this way. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army
The Army's secret ocean-dumping program spanned 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 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.
The reports contain bits and pieces of information on the Army's long-running
dumping program. The reports were released to the Daily Press - which cross-indexed
them to obtain the most comprehensive, detailed picture yet of what was dumped,
where and when.
To put the information in context, the newspaper also examined nautical charts,
National Archive records, scientific studies and interviewed dozens of experts
on unexploded ordnance and chemical warfare in the United States and overseas.
The Army's Brankowitz created the seminal report on ocean dumping. He examined
classified Army records and in 1987 wrote a long report on chemical weapons
movements over the decades. It included the revelation that more than a dozen
shipments ended up in the ocean. The report wasn't widely disseminated.
His follow-up report in 1989 uncovered - through review of other previously
classified documents - the rough nautical coordinates of some dumpsites and
the existence of more dump zones. In 2001, a computer database was created to
include additional dump zones that the Army found and more details on some of
the dumping operations.
The database summary and the 1989 report had never been released publicly before.
"I know I didn't find everything," said Brankowitz, who's 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 dumpsites
off the coast of at least 11 states - but knows the rough nautical coordinates
of only half.
At least 64 million pounds of liquid mustard gas and nerve agent in 1-ton steel
canisters were dumped into the sea, along with a minimum of 400,000 chemical-filled
bombs, grenades, landmines and rockets - as well as radioactive waste, 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 hasn't 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 dumpsites likely exist, he conceded.
The environmental effect of chemical weapons dumpsites is unknown but potentially
Ocean depth varies widely off the East Coast. As a rule, it gradually deepens
to 600 feet before hitting the outer continental shelf, which drops 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 citizens 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
still 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 that 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 words of ship captains,
who surely wanted to ditch their cargo quickly and, Chatterton suspects, likely
"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," he 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
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 the coast of Charleston, S.C., the most specific surviving records indicate.
"I have never had any information to suggest this was done," said
Charles Farmer, a marine biologist who's 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
The first documented dump near that state was 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 akin to mustard gas. 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's one indication that those weapons were dumped in relatively shallow
water: Army records show 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
In 1944, at least 16,000 mustard-filled 100-pound bombs were unloaded off 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 now part of Gulf Islands National Seashore,
a popular vacation and fishing destination.
A 1947 dumpsite in Alaska's Aleutian Islands is only 12 miles from a harbor.
VIRGINIA AND MARYLAND DUMPSITES
By the 1950s, the Army shifted much of its chemical dump operations north to
the Virginia-Maryland state line and into deeper water.
In 1957, the Army dumped 48 tons of Lewisite off Virginia Beach, in 12,600
feet of water.
Four more dump zones were created more than 100 miles off the coast between
Chincoteague, Va., and Assateague, Md. - tourist spots known for their unsullied
beaches and populations of wild horses.
Dumped there in about 2,000 feet of water were at least 77,000 mustard-filled
mortar shells, 5,000 white phosphorous munitions, 1,500 1-ton canisters of Lewisite
and 800 55-gallon barrels of military radioactive waste.
It couldn't be determined what kind of radioactive waste was dumped. But there's
one indication that it could be highly dangerous waste with a half-life of thousands
National Archive records of the Army's secretive chemical weapons escort unit,
reviewed by the Daily Press, show several 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, contained 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 Ocean.
Two ships full of the most potent of all nerve gases, known as VX, were scuttled
in 6,000 feet of water - miles off the coast of Atlantic City, N.J., as part
of Operation CHASE. "CHASE" was Pentagon shorthand for "Cut Holes
and Sink 'Em."
The nerve gas was in rockets 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 S.S. Corporal Eric G. Gibson and S.S. 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 scuttled nearby is no longer a hazard: It blew up on its way to
the ocean floor Aug. 7, 1968.
That ship, the S.S. Richardson, was filled with conventional high-explosive
weapons and 3,500 1-ton containers of mustard agent mixed with water. It was
on its way to the 7,800-foot bottom 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's 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 dumpsites.
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, spokesman Gary Strasburg said.
That agency, the Minerals Management Service, knows only what the Army has
revealed to that agency: that chemical weapons were dumped at sea and that some
are in the Gulf of Mexico and off South Carolina, agency records show.
The effect of the dumping operations has never been studied. Few scientists
knew that 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 past 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.
Hundreds of bottlenose dolphins mysteriously washed up on Virginia and New
Jersey shores in 1987. They died with large, 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 has
ever been found with its skin partly peeling off.
One marine mammal specialist who suspects that leaking chemical weapons killed
the dolphins met Army officials and was told dumping had been done. But he was
assured the weapons were unloaded 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" that 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 whether 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, the
Army's Brankowitz said.
LITTLE OR NO MONITORING
Over the decades, the Army has conducted environmental tests on only four of
its dumpsites - and none since 1975.
Some of the last tests the Army conducted were on the nerve-gas-filled ships
off New Jersey. They found no evidence the weapons had leaked, Brankowitz said.
He said that led the Army to presume the pressure on the weapons as they sank
to the bottom crushed the shells and made them squirt their deadly contents
onto the seabed, where they long ago broke down into their non-lethal chemical
That might be wishful thinking, some scientists said.
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 dumpsite on nautical charts -
the wreck of the S.S. William Ralston, scuttled 117 miles off San Francisco
in the 1950s - hasn't been found to be leaking, though 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're now paper-thin
- with holes in some of them, said Richard Charter, a California-based environmentalist
with Environmental Defense.
He said he feared that recent congressional approval for offshore gas and oil
exploration off the East and West coasts - permitted through this summer's lifting
of a 22-year-old moratorium on the activity - 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 huge airguns 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
Overseas, scientists who monitor chemical weapons dumpsites off other countries
have identified an unmistakable problem in the Skagerrak Strait, a narrow but
deep body of water that separates Norway and Denmark.
In 2002, Norwegian scientists sent a remote-controlled vehicle to investigate
four ships full of captured German chemical weapons. The U.S. and British militaries
scuttled them after World War II in about 2,000 feet of water.
The Norwegians found that the sunken ships remained intact. Some of the shells
had leaked. Others were slowly corroding. That reveals 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 learned.
Also worrisome: Nets from fishing trawlers were found tangled on some of the
"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."
The Army is obliged to at least assess the danger that the dumpsites pose today,
said Lenny Siegel, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight
who specializes 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 wondered.
"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."