Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans is a 9-part series on the history and consequences of decommissioned unconventional munitions disposed at sea.
Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans Part 7: Ongoing Risk discusses the uncommon and unexpected ways these munitions have resurfaced.
The problem is that these chemical munitions don’t stay beneath the waves, and they don’t appear to decay—at least not fast enough to prevent suffering and chaos worldwide. So whom do they pose a threat to?
Beachgoers for one, as evidenced by the sheer number of signs on beaches warning of the danger of unexploded ordnance. These signs will often utilize identification guides to the various bombs, shells and rockets native to the region in question. The following is just a glimpse—thousands of incidents go unreported, especially in poverty-stricken or authoritarian nations.
July 1983 – Twenty-six military phosphorous and calcium phosphide smoke and flame markers appear on the coast of Cornwall and South Devon, United Kingdom.
February 1989 – Children in Studland Bay, Dorset (UK) scavenge phosphorous-contaminated seashells from the beach. The contaminates dry and ignite on a minibus soon after. Reports indicate a sunbather suffered phosphorous burns at the same site in the year previous.
October – November 1990 – Roughly three hundred anti-tank gasoline gel bombs wash up on the shore of Moyle District in Northern Ireland. These devices were re-disposed of in the Beaufort Dyke, one of the most heavily concentrations of dumped military ordnance on the planet.
February 1992 – A 550-pound mustard gas bomb is discovered on Dueodde Beach in Bornholm, Denmark.
July 2005 – Authorities evacuate Rohoboth Beach in Delaware after a visitor discovers two artillery shells. Experts fear the shells may have originated from a nearby chemical weapons dumping sites.
In 2004, homeowners began finding live ordnance in their front yard—quite literally. Crushed clamshells are a cheap and popular driveway fill alternative, especially in the northeastern United States. Motorized dredgers bring up shells from the ocean bottom and deliver them to factories where they are crushed, cleaned and packaged for delivery. The dredging systems do not operate in deep water, rarely recovering material from clamshell beds deeper than about 350 feet. Nor do they operate far offshore; the clamshell dredge in question operated just 20 miles off New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the United States.
Authorities eventually recovered 318 individual munitions, including a 75mm World War I-era artillery shell. Troublingly, the shell contained solidified mustard gas. When Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians from nearby Dover Air Force Base disassembled the weapon for study, one technician severely burned his hand and arm after coming into contact with the unknown substance.
The resulting investigation revealed that the shell had been recovered from an unmarked dumpsite in just 130 feet of water, well within range of any SCUBA diver with an Advanced Open Water certification. (To give a better idea of how accessible this depth is, the National Association of Underwater Instructors [NAUI] awards this certification to individuals aged 12 or older.)
Out of the more than three hundred explosives, fourteen rested in a single driveway. All were live grenades of French manufacture, likely surplus from the First World War. The driveway’s owner had been driving over these explosives for more than eight months before they were discovered.
Without intentionally minimizing the hazards posed to seaside pleasure seekers and the owners of clamshell driveways, the true danger is to those who ply their trade upon the ocean.
Fishermen are generally not inclined to report incidents with or exposure to unexploded ordnance or chemical munitions, as doing so to the proper authorities may endanger the entire take and exclude them from favored grounds. Accordingly, consider the following to be just a tiny glimpse into the true scale of the problem.
March 1982: Twelve fishermen are blinded and burned by accidental exposure to chemical munitions in a single week. The worst incident struck seven crewmen aboard the Heldarf Tendur, all of whom were blinded after recovering a gas grenade off Bornholm, Denmark. According to maritime authorities, more than 30 trawlers had already been contaminated by similar incidents that year alone.
April 1986: A marine mine exploded in the nets of the Susana D, a 90-foot trawler near Beach Head, Rhode Island. Just three years later, the Susana D struck another mine in the same region.
June 1989: After netting an unexploded mine in the Scottish waterway Isle of Arran, the fishing vessel Ha’Burn contacts authorities and attempts to tow the mine to a safe distance. An Explosive Ordnance Disposal team wires the mine for safe detonation, but the charge goes off early, sinking the Ha’Burn. Her crew survived the disaster.
July 1989: Three men suffer terrible burns and blistering after retrieving a gas canister. They were dredging for scallops just 40 miles off New Jersey.
1995 – 2000: Roughly 25,000 pounds of pounds of conventional explosives are recovered and reported by fishermen in the German state of Lower Saxony during this period.
April 2005: Three Dutch fishermen are killed aboard the Dutch trawler Maarten Jacob by what was believed to be a World War II-era shell or bomb. Two of were thrown overboard by the force of the explosion; a third fatally injured on deck. Despite extensive damage, the Jacob was able to sail back to port under her own power.
Due to their proximity to massive post World War 2 dumpsites, Danish fishermen are under an especially distinct threat. One of the first causalities was a 15-year-old fisherman who discovered a broken grey canister in his trawler’s nets. He retrieved it by hand and threw it back in. Thinking little of the incident, he and another crewman rinsed a usual oily agent off their day’s catch. That night, the pain began.
“It was terrifying,” he said. “The pain was unbearable and my hands blistered all over.”
The boy would spend the next few months receiving multiple skin grafts on his hands. Still badly scarred four decades later, they have never entirely recovered.
To combat cover-up or misreporting, Denmark rewards the unintentional discovery of military munitions with special incentives. With these funds in place, more than 400 incidents were reported in a single two-decade period. Danish fishing vessels now carry military-grade chemical weapons protection gear, as required by law.
No individual site better exemplifies the ongoing threat of chemical munitions to both coastal residents and fisherman than the seaside city of Bari, located just above the heel of the Italian boot on the Adriatic. This mid-sized city holds the dubious distinction as the only city in Europe to be hit by a sustained assault of chemical weapons (albeit unintentionally) during the entire course of World War II.
The City of Bari, capitol of the region, formed a key logistical center for Allied forces during the Italian invasion. Though anticipating success, the Allies prepares for all possible contingencies. A secret transport mission shipped a large stockpile of mustard gas to the logistical center. Should the Axis powers turn the tables and force the Allied invasion out of Italy, the Allies intended to use the vicious mixture of mustard gas as an “area denial” weapon, contaminating vast swaths of strategic territory, and rendering them unusable to enemy forces. Should the flailing Germany military employ chemical munitions as a last-ditch effort to turn the tide of war, the Allies would be well-prepared to respond in kind.
Much of this stockpile was sequestered aboard the war-built liberty ship John Harvey, which carried more than two thousand M47-A1 mustard gas bombs. The situation took an ugly turn when a fleet of German Junker Ju 88 bombers sprang a massive surprise attack on the port city. While the John Harvey was not struck directly, she still caught fire and exploded, killing everyone aboard. The mustard gas bombs released much of their aerosolized contents, and rolling clouds of toxic haze advanced upon the city. In total, the attack claimed two thousand casualties, including military personnel, merchant marines and civilians. Some 628 were wounded by mustard gas directly, and 69 died of exposure over the coming days. Given the ugly implications of the incident, top Allied leaders conspired to keep the self-inflicted disaster secret.
Conspiracy of silence aside, death stalked the waters of Bari. Fishermen consistently dredged up mustard gas remnants for decades, leading to more than 237 documented cases of sulfur mustard exposure, including five deaths. While some contend that the medical research acquired in the aftermath of the accident directly lead to the first cancer-treating chemotherapy drugs (as mustard gas quickly affects the biological mechanisms of fast-dividing cancerous cells), it is doubtful that the thousands of permanently afflicted found much comfort in that fact. Some doubt the whole story has yet been told, as studies of area fish test positive for hazardous levels of arsenic suggesting the presence of unreported lewisite.
In the United States, the chemical munitions came once again to public attention in 2010 when the clamming vessel ESS Pursuit recovered two old artillery shells in just 145 feet of water, less than 50 miles from the shores of Long Island. Hours later, a young Russian sailor reported extensive blistering and shortness of breath. Doctors immediately recognized the symptoms of sulfur mustard exposure, later confirmed by blood and urine tests. Despite extensive burning to his arm and leg the young man, by all reports, handled the situation in stride. He was even described as “nonplussed” by an attending physician. (From a purely professional sense, American chemical weapons experts were excited for the chance to work with modern-day sulfur mustard wounds.)
Experts were stunned at the potency of the agent, especially in light of the long period of submergence. Decontamination procedures began immediately; the Coast Guard quarantined the Pursuit while National Guard troops tested for additional chemical agents. Federal officials tracked down and disposed of the most recent clam haul.
Despite the quick action of authorities, the incident left a troubling and messy loose end. The crew of the Pursuit tossed the shells overboard in 60 feet of water before returning to port, and they may be difficult or impossible to ever relocate for proper disposal. Any passing fishermen may accidentally retrieve them yet again; the final chapter of this story may not yet be written.