Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans is a 9-part series on the history and consequences of decommissioned unconventional munitions disposed at sea.
Part 3: Now What? With the First and Second World Wars ending with the major powers holding immense chemical weapon stockpiles, oceanic dumping became the option of first resort.
So what do we now do with all these terrible inventions? Both the First and Second World Wars ended with major powers holding considerable unutilized stockpiles of chemical weaponry. Dangerous, prone to leakage with no reason to use them, they posed a serious risk to both victorious and defeated forces. Burial, incineration and disposal at sea became the preferred methods of discarding these munitions. The US military alone employed some 74 oceanic dumpsites, ridding themselves of 292 million pounds of toxic gasses (including less-lethal varieties such as tear gas and “vomiting” gasses.) Chemical munitions were far from the only potentially toxic substance disposed of. Dumped items also included land mines, rockets and more than 500 tons of radioactive waste, to say nothing of conventional explosives.
The contents of the 74 dumpsites include, among others, nerve agents tabun and sarin, 40 million pounds of the blister agent lewisite, 183 million pounds of mustard gas, and 400,000 chemical-filled bombs. Befitting a global power, less than half of the dumpsites were adjacent to national waters. The remaining 42 sites included sites off Italy, France, India, Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Denmark, Norway and others.
Among the major powers, the United States arguably kept the best records in regards to their massive post-war chemical weapons dumping program. Despite this fact, advocates, researchers and scientists have been forced to come to the reluctant agreement that there is no way to tally the true scope of the oceanic dumping.
To make matters worse, the 292 million pounds of chemicals dumped at sea by the United States is nothing short of dwarfed by the programs instituted by other major powers. Scientists estimate Soviet forces dumped 320 million pounds of chemical weapons in her adjacent seas, including the landlocked Barent, Kara and White Seas. The Soviets dumped 275 million pounds of mustard gas, lewisite, tabun and sarin after World War 2 alone. Finally, Germany and Britain’s postwar stockpile made up an astounding 606 million pounds, nearly all of which was ended up in the bottom of the ocean.
This colossal disposal project was not known for strict military efficiency, but sloppy, poorly documented work. The massive dumping operation near Bornholm, Demark is particularly illustrative—men would begin throwing munitions overboard while the transport ships were still on route to the dump site, spreading the weapons over hundreds of square miles. Many of the munitions were still packed in wooden crates, which provided just enough buoyancy to either bob for a few minutes or hours before sinking, or even float all the way to Danish or Swedish coastlines.
Buoys were theoretically supposed to mark the dumpsites, but this essential step was often neglected, delayed or ignored altogether, and the rudimentary navigational systems of the time allowed much room for positioning error, at least by today’s standards.