Law takes aim at Army for dumping
Congress to military: Inspect, test and clean up the chemical weapons dumped into the sea.
BY JOHN M.R. BULL
October 18, 2006
The military must inspect the chemical weapons it dumped into the ocean decades ago to determine the danger they now pose to people or marine life, under a bill signed into law on Tuesday.
Then the Army will have to figure out how to clean up or contain - if possible - the mess it secretly made in more than two dozen offshore locations.
"We're elated," said Dave Helfert, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, who pushed for the new law. "This is the first concrete step that addresses a serious threat to the public. It's very important."
A Daily Press investigation last October revealed that the Army dumped at least 64 million pounds of deadly mustard and nerve gas - included in artillery shells, bombs and rockets - off the U.S. coastline, kept it secret and stopped checking 30 years ago to see whether the weapons were leaking. Some evidence suggests the munitions may now be leaking and pose a danger to marine life and people who eat some types of seafood.
The weapons are off the coast of at least 11 states, including Virginia, New Jersey, North Carolina, Hawaii, Alaska and Florida. But more dumpsites may exist because the Army's records are sketchy and were destroyed long ago.
If not cleaned up, the weapons likely pose a threat for generations to come. Metal deteriorates at different rates in the ocean, depending on the depth, temperature and prevailing currents. This causes the weapons to potentially leak at different times and at different rates.
The Daily Press investigation prompted the Army to conduct an extensive search of all surviving ocean-dumping records. A report on that research is finished but has sat unreleased in the hands of top Pentagon officials for more than a month.
After reading the newspaper's findings, several lawmakers demanded the military do more than just check records for unrevealed dumpsites.
A provision in the defense authorization act - signed into law Tuesday by President Bush - requires that the military inspect its known chemical weapons dumps and record the locations on nautical charts so mariners knowthe potential dangers.
The inspections must include water and seabed environmental testing to see whether the weapons are leaking, or have leaked, and determine thecurrent and potential future threat to sea life. The military also must assess the risks to humans.
Mustard gas survives in seawater in a concentrated gel that can last for years, pushed around by ocean currents. Other chemicals can accumulate in seafood and be passed up the food chain to humans.
"This requirement is absolutely necessary to protect the public health of everyone who lives, works or visits the oceans near these munitions dumps as well as the condition of the oceans and marine life," said U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-New Jersey, one of the first lawmakers to raise a fuss.
The bill requires the military to monitor each site - most, but not all, are located in deep water - and determine how to clean them up if that is possible.
The weapons are likely to be unstable and extremely hazardous to disturb after decades in the ocean. They were dumped between 1940 and 1972.
The bill went a step further than experts expected because it applies to all ocean-dumped munitions, not just chemical weapons. "That really is quite amazing," said Craig Williams, director of the Kentucky-based Chemical Weapons Working Group, a citizen advocacy operation that monitors the Army's disposal of land-based chemical weapons. "I'll be in the ground 100 years before they get around to all of that. This isn't going to be cheap."
The Army and Navy extensively dumped surplus conventional weapons off the side of ships for decades and in the late 1960s and early 1970s loaded old ships with old weapons and blew them up, scattering unexploded ordnance inall directions.
The military will abide by the new law "in an effort to ensure the continued protection of the environment and safety of the American public," said Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin.
There is no estimate on what the new law's requirements will cost, and this year's defense-funding bill doesn't include any money for the military to begin complying with the new law's provisions. Congress makes such appropriations annually.
The law does not apply to U.S.-created chemical weapon dumpsites off the coasts of at least 11 other countries. At the end of World War II, the Army dumped its overseas chemical weapon stockpiles where they were located, killing or injuring hundreds in the ensuing decades.