The Army hopes to learn more about the risks from ocean-dumped chemical weapons by testing and dismantling an artillery shell filled with mustard agent that was dredged up in October off the coast of New Jersey.
"This is the first time we'll have an opportunity to do an in-depth analysis" of a shell long buried on the ocean floor, said Karen Drewen, an Army spokeswoman in Aberdeen, Md.
The Army hopes to discover how long the World War I-era shell has been on the ocean floor, whether it was pushed around by currents over the years, and whether the shell's casing has partially eroded from the saltwater.
Army scientists also expect to determine whether the mustard agent inside the 75-mm shell has broken down over the years, or is as dangerous as it once was.
A Daily Press investigation in October revealed that the Army dumped at least 64 million pounds of chemical weapons, as well as 400,000 chemical-filled bombs and rockets, into the ocean off the coasts of 11 states, and doesn't know where it all is because records are missing or were destroyed.
The shell to be analyzed was one of three dredged up by a clamming operation only 20 miles off the coast in roughly 130 feet of water.
Two of the shells were found last year. One turned up, intact, in a driveway after the shells were crushed at a processing plant and distributed for cheap driveway fill. The second was found at the plant and dismantled, burning three Air Force bomb disposal technicians, one seriously.
Those two shells - "remarkably intact" after being in the ocean for decades - were destroyed, Drewen said.
A third shell, found in October in a pile of clamshells waiting to be crushed, was so barnacle-encrusted that it is not readily identifiable as a piece of ordnance, she said.
That could end up being beneficial.
A marine biologist will examine the shell, which has been kept in a secure location at Dover Air Force Base since it was discovered.
An analysis of the barnacles could show how long the shell was in the ocean, which is important because the Army has no record of a chemical weapons dump site only 20 miles off the coast of New Jersey.
The Army is keen to know whether the shell was dumped as surplus after World War I, or kept in storage and thrown overboard in large-scale Army ocean dumping operations from World War II until 1970.
Because those with the clamming operation don't know exactly where the weapon was dredging up, the barnacles potentially could pinpoint where on the ocean floor the ordnance was located, said Rusty Fendick, an environmental engineer for the Army's chemical weapons agency in Aberdeen, Md.
Also of interest: Whether the shell has rolled around with the ocean's current since it was dumped, and if so, how far it has moved - something else that a barnacle analysis could reveal.
After the barnacle examination is complete, the Army plans to drill a hole into the shell and drain out the mustard agent. Commonly referred to as a gas, the agent actually is a thick liquid until it's dispersed into the air when exploded.
Drilling into the shell could reveal whether saltwater has eaten into the shell casing, or whether the barnacles have protected the ordnance from corrosion. This could be important for an impending Army evaluation of the risk posed by the millions of pounds of chemical weapons it dumped into the ocean over decades.
Army chemical weapons experts assumed that shells dumped into warmer water were likely to corrode much more quickly than those dumped in very cold water. This would indicate that shells dumped in warm water succumbed to corrosion long ago, released their contents into the ocean, and no longer pose a threat. But that assumption would no longer hold if barnacles act as a shield and prevent shell corrosion in relatively warm saltwater.
The mustard agent drained from the shell and chemically tested will determine if saltwater leaked into the shell. If so, that could show whether the warfare agent remained as deadly as ever, or broke down into its harmless chemical components, Fendick said.
The chemical analysis could also determine just what kind of mustard agent was in artillery shells of that era.
Several varieties of mustard agents were created over the decades. Some are more dangerous than others. Some conceivably could break down into environmentally dangerous components that could get into the food chain if released into the ocean, or damage the DNA of marine organisms.
After the testing is completed, the Army will blow up the drained shell in a standard procedure that normally cuts the shell into distinct pieces, Fendick said. Army forensic specialists hope to discover whether the barnacles on the shell act as a shield to prevent complete demolition.
This could be important information in the event other ocean-dumped chemical weapons somehow make their way to land in the future, guiding the Army on how best to dispose of them, Fendick said.
The Army hopes to bring the shell from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland for analysis, but is mindful of possible community opposition to trucking the potentially dangerous ordnance through residential neighborhoods, Drewen said. A public hearing on the plan has been set for Dec. 15 in Aberdeen, Md.