Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans is a 9-part series on the history and consequences of decommissioned unconventional munitions disposed at sea.
Part 4: Cut Holes and Sink ‘Em is about the fast-and-loose American weapons disposal program of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
No action better typified the American attitude towards oceanic dumping than the CHASE (Cut Holes and Sink ‘Em) program. It was fast, dirty, cheap and had the added advantage of ridding the military of a few decaying and unwanted World War 2-era Liberty ships. Over the course of the program, the military packed fifteen ships to the gills with 31 million pounds of high explosives and chemical munitions and unceremoniously towed out to sea then scuttled, torpedoed or bombed until sunk. Including a similar precursor program, this activity began in 1958 and ended in 1970, only then explicitly prohibited by the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972.
To give some credence to the sheer scale of the operation, one need look no further than CHASE 3, the third of the fifteen total operations. Some eight million pounds of munitions and a million pounds of explosives were rigged to detonate at 1,000 feet below the surface. Whether the stricken ship reached that depth or not before detonating is not known, but just 17 seconds after slipping beneath the waves the resulting blast lifted a 600 foot high column of water from the sea—higher than Seattle’s Space Needle.
CHASE 3 was hardly an aberration—in 1946, a collision claimed the bomb and ammunition-laden SS Kielce, bottoming her off Folkestone in the narrowest section of the English Channel. Private interests eventually contracted the clearing of the wreck and the disposal of her explosive stores, beginning in 1966. Cutting charges accidentally ignited the cargo, and the resulting explosion sent a tidal wave careening towards Folkestone. Shaken by the shockwave, the townspeople took stock of their damaged chimneys, dislodged shingles and cracked ceilings. Scientists calculated that the explosion had a yield equivalent to two kilotons of TNT; roughly double the output of North Korea’s 2006 underground test of a nuclear weapon.
The remainder of the CHASE program was not without incident. In 1970, a thick blanket of fog allowed the Navy to lose track of a ship packed with 6 million pounds of bombs, rockets, torpedoes and mines. Bombers hunted the lost ship for 19 full hours as the hulk slowly took on water. Eventually, the ship had to be left to sink without incident, slipping beneath the waves unscathed. She settled in 2,800 feet of water, easily the shallowest disposal of the entire program.
None of the CHASE ships have been officially surveyed since, not even the four off Florida loaded with mustard, sarin and VX gas. Despite the dictate that the disposals occur at minimum 250 miles from American shores, many coastal residents of Alaska, California, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia believe they may have cause for concern.