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House to probe chemical dumping

Congress looks at the Army's dumping of chemical weapons in the sea. Other countries and environmentalists want answers as well.

BY JOHN M.R. BULL

247-4768

November 13, 2005

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Federal lawmakers are demanding the Army reveal everything it knows about where it dumped chemical weapons into the world's oceans, as well as provide proof the munitions won't leak and cause an environmental catastrophe.

Hearings in the House Armed Services Committee are likely if the Army's response is inadequate, said U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J. and a committee member.

"We're not going to let this go," Andrews said. "I'm not going to be satisfied with the Army saying, in effect, 'We know the facts, and we don't think there is a problem - trust us.' "

Andrews has been pushing for more information from the Army since the Daily Press published an investigation into the Army's decades-long ocean dumping off at least 11 states, including New Jersey.

The newspaper found that the Army dumped at least 64 million pounds of chemical weapons, mostly mustard and nerve gas, from World War II until 1970 - and more than that off 16 other countries. The weapons likely are still active and slowly corroding in the salt water.

The newspaper's investigation was circulated globally and brought demands for action from across the country and astonishment worldwide. Recent developments include:

New Zealand issued a formal query through diplomatic channels, asking the United States to provide all information that it had on chemical-weapon dump sites the United States might have created off that country.

Greenpeace said it was considering a diving expedition to one of the 26 identified Army chemical-weapon dump sites off the United States to see whether the long-submerged weapons were leaking.

A worldwide environmental group called for an international law to require the United States and other countries to inspect, monitor and clean up their chemical-weapon ocean dumps.

New Jersey's Andrews wants to know where exactly the dumps are, why they haven't been monitored and why the Army told no one in Congress or at the state level of the potential dangers lurking offshore. He wants proof that the weapons aren't leaking and won't leak, he said.

Other lawmakers are also demanding answers.

"The decision to dump these weapons was made in a different era, at a time when the consequences were not understood the way they are today," said U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii.

"Still, the Department of Defense and the U.S. government bear a responsibility for remedying the problem," he said. "... I will make it a priority to enact legislation to deal with the problem and communicate the urgency of this issue to the Pentagon."

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., issued a formal letter of inquiry to the Army and has scheduled an informal briefing with military officials for Monday afternoon. Warner is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Under fire, the Army has decided to conduct a full search of all surviving ocean-dumping records to identify any other chemical-weapon dump sites. It's also preparing a formal response to questions from Congress. And it's expected to designate which military agency will oversee the record search, as well as any other response deemed necessary.

"The U.S. Army is actively engaged with members of Congress regarding the disposal of munitions at deep-sea locations," Army spokesman John P. Boyce Jr. said. "As always, the U.S. Army will work closely with Congress and other government agencies on these ordnance-disposal issues to ensure the safety of others and the protection of our environment."

It's long been known that the Army dumped chemical weapons into the ocean. But only now has it come to light just how much was involved, what kind of weapons were thrown into the ocean and the rough nautical coordinates of some locations.

The Army says it doesn't know the locations of almost half the dump zones that it created off the United States after World War II. Records are vague or missing or were destroyed.

More chemical-weapon dump sites likely exist because the Army hasn't reviewed dumping records from the World War I era, when throwing chemical weapons into the ocean was common.

Some evidence suggests the weapons might have leaked - or will leak in the future - as the ordnance corroded from exposure to salt water. Steel containers and shell casings corrode at different rates, depending on the depth and temperature of the water.

When released, nerve gas lasts about six weeks in the ocean, killing every organism that it touches. Mustard gas forms a concentrated gel that survives at least five years in salt water, rolling around on the ocean floor.

Army reports dating to 1989 identified the locations and contents of more than a dozen dump sites. Only now have those reports come to light.

"It just seems so unconscionable to me for the military to just wash their hands of it and not tell people where they are until now," said John Hocevar, an ocean specialist for Greenpeace, a worldwide environmental organization. "It seems like it's a threat that won't just go away."

Greenpeace - known to stage dramatic demonstrations to garner publicity for its causes - is considering an expedition to one of the dump zones identified with nautical coordinates by the Army, Hocevar said.

The idea is to dive with cameras and environmental testing equipment to see whether the weapons are leaking or whether there's evidence that they've leaked. A Geiger counter would be brought along to ascertain the danger from about 500 tons of Army-dumped radioactive waste at the sites - important because the Army doesn't know how radioactive it might be, Hocevar said.

"They need to tell us where all of it is," said Michael Town, director of the Sierra Club of Virginia. "They need to be transparent. They need to tell us what the impact is to the environment and our coasts. The public needs to be kept abreast about what they're finding. The public has been in the dark too long."

The Daily Press' investigation was published in news media outlets worldwide and drew an international response.

New Zealand's diplomatic query was prompted by revelations from U.S. National Archives records that the United States kept a chemical-weapon stockpile in that Pacific Ocean country at the close of World War II.

Newly released Army records show that the United States dumped its overseas stockpiles, as well as captured enemy stockpiles, off whatever country the weapons were in when the war ended. Those included Australia, India, Japan, Italy, France and Denmark.

The Varda Group is an international environmental organization. It's called for an international law to require all countries that dumped chemical weapons into the world's oceans to publicize their locations, monitor the sites to see whether they're leaking, and clean them up or contain them, if possible.

Such a law "should develop and disseminate best practice for waste retrieval, capping or any other appropriate measure on a case-by-case basis to avoid passing the buck to future generations," Varda Group spokesman Rémi Parmentier said.

An international treaty signed in 1975 prohibits the ocean dumping of chemical weapons but doesn't cover dump zones created before the ban. The Army halted ocean dumping in 1970.

The Daily Press investigation was also discussed at a recent symposium on chemical weapons in Moscow. The conference was attended by minister- and ambassador-level representatives from around the world. It was conducted to talk about Russia's delays in adhering to a separate international treaty that requires disposal of its chemical-weapon stockpile by 2011, as is being done by the United States.

During breaks in the conference, the newspaper's articles were read and translated for those who couldn't read English, Craig Williams said. He was there for the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a grass-roots organization in Kentucky that's active in chemical-weapon disposal issues.

No one was especially surprised to learn that the United States extensively dumped chemical weapons into the ocean, Williams said. But many attendees were astonished to learn that the U.S. Army didn't know where it tossed all the weapons, he said.

"It was quite a topic of conversation," Williams said. "The general response was ... 'You're telling me they took this out and dumped it, and they don't know where it all is?' Well, yes."