BY JOHN M.R. BULL
October 30, 2005
Newly released Army records show that four dumpsites containing a hodgepodge of deadly ordnance are in deep water off Chincoteague, near the Maryland state line on the Eastern Shore.
A fifth is in very deep water off Virginia Beach.
A sixth might - or might not - exist. A former ammunition inspector at Nansemond Ordnance Depot in Suffolk told Army investigators in 1970 that "some" chemical weapons had been dumped in the Atlantic off Norfolk after an "incident at port" during World War II.
The Army says no records exist to verify whether that was, indeed, done; where they were dumped; or whether the weapons are in dangerously shallow water.
Years of records about dumping after World War II are missing. The Army has never reviewed records of World War I-era dumping, when chemical weapons were routinely tossed into relatively shallow water.
As a result, more dumpsites likely exist off the country's shoreline, the Army says.
Could they be waiting to be found in shallow water off Virginia?
"There's no guarantee in the world, but I can tell you there was little history of chemical weapons in the area during World War I," William Brankowitz said. He's a deputy program manager of the Army's current chemical weapon stockpile and a leading authority on ocean dumping of chemical weapons.
"Virginia didn't figure prominently in that time period," when chemical weapons were tested and stored at dozens of bases nationwide, he said. This reduces the likelihood that chemical weapons were dumped off Virginia in undocumented shallow-water dump zones, he said.
The contents of known Virginia dumpsites appear to be in little danger of washing up on shore, judging by three Army reports obtained by the Daily Press.
But watermen and environmentalists were shocked to learn they exist and fear they could leak, endanger people and decimate economically critical fisheries.
"I'm not surprised we dumped toxic waste off our coast, but I am surprised about how much of it is out there and that it is what it is - mustard gas and maybe highly radioactive waste," said Michael Town, director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.
"The question is: What are we going to do about it? Has there already been an impact on our marine environment? We think the Army or the government should go look. We need to know what the impact of it is."
Watermen also want answers. "It is surprising they would do it, but nothing the government does shocks me anymore," said Ernie L. Bowden, president of the Eastern Shore Working Watermen's Association.
He wondered whether the fragile fisheries that he relied on as a self-employed fisherman would be destroyed if the weapons leaked.
And are the 59 scalloping operations in Chincoteague, which dredge the ocean floor in the region, in danger of scooping up chemical weapons?
The seabed off Virginia's Eastern Shore is one of the country's best scalloping areas.
Dredgers often pull up strange metal objects. "On scallopers, guys are kicking stuff overboard with their feet," said James Kirkley, a William and Mary economics professor who has long studied the East Coast's scallop industry.
Three World War I-era mustard-gas-filled artillery shells were dredged up from about 130 feet of water in the summer of 2004 off New Jersey.
They were either jettisoned by the Army before reaching a deep-water dump zone or tossed in an undocumented location after World War I.
In those days, the Army instructed ship captains to make sure the water was at least 600 feet deep before dumping their chemical weapons, Brankowitz said.
After World War II, the Army went into deeper water, creating five dumps off Virginia.
In 1945, more than seven shiploads of chemical munitions were thrown into one dumpsite on the Virginia-Maryland line in water more than 2,000 feet deep.
In 1957, the Army dumped 48 1-ton containers of Lewisite - a blister agent akin to mustard gas - in 12,600 feet of water off Virginia Beach.
After dumping chemical weapons off other states, the Army returned to the Virginia-Maryland line in the early 1960s to create three more deep-water dumpsites. One site contains about 317 tons of unidentified radioactive waste and two 1-ton containers of Lewisite.
Another site, created in 1962, contains more than 700 mustard-gas-filled artillery shells, 209 drums of cyanide, 5,000 white-phosphorus munitions and more than 400,000 pounds of radioactive waste. In 1964, 1,700 mustard-gas-filled 75 mm artillery shells were dumped nearby, along with 800 55-gallon drums of radioactive waste.
Army records don't reveal what kind of radioactive waste was dumped. But National Archives records give one indication that it could be very dangerous nuclear waste with a half-life spanning generations.
Records of the chemical weapons escort unit - which planned and guarded shipments - reveal dozens of trips in the 1950s from a nuclear development laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to Army bases where chemical weapons were slated for ocean disposal.
Oak Ridge was where thermonuclear weapons were being developed at the time.
"This report certainly raises concerns, and the governor will be closely monitoring the military's response to this," said Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Gov. Mark R. Warner.
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