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US Didn't Dump Chemical Arms off Just Its Own Shores

by John M.R. Bull  Daily Press  November 3, 2005

Overseas, fishermen have been hurt by chemical weapons the United States secretly sank, from the Riviera to Australia.

As World War II drew to a close, the Army was faced with scant storage space in ordnance depots at home and huge chemical weapons stockpiles overseas.

The solution: Dump the weapons off the coast of whatever country they were in.

The result: U.S.-made weapons of mass destruction litter the coasts of more than 11 countries - including Italy, France, India, Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Denmark and Norway, according to a 2001 Army report recently released to the Daily Press.

The chemical weapons remain there to this day. And they're extremely dangerous.

Some of them have washed up on shore or been dredged up by fishermen. At least 200 people have been seriously injured over the years.

The Army now admits that it secretly dumped at least 64 million pounds of chemical warfare agents, as well as more than 400,000 mustard gas-filled bombs and rockets, off the United States - and much more than that off other countries, a Daily Press investigation has found.

The Army can't say where all the dumpsites are. There might be more.

The Army is missing years of records on where it secretly dumped surplus chemical weapons from the close of World War II until 1970, when the practice was halted. It hasn't reviewed any records of post-World War I at-sea chemical weapons dumping but knows the practice was commonplace at the time.

More than 30 U.S.-created chemical weapon dumpsites are scattered off other countries, the newly released Army report indicated. It was created by the chemical weapon historical research and response team at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

"It's a disaster looming - a time bomb, say," said Dr. Gert Harigel, a well-respected physicist active in Geneva who's been active in international chemical weapons issues. "The scientific community knows very little about it. It scares me a lot."

The United States isn't legally bound to do anything about the dangers that it created in the oceans, whether from its own weapons it dumped or those of captured enemy stockpiles.

A 1975 treaty signed by the United States prohibits ocean dumping of chemical munitions. But it doesn't address dump zones created before the treaty was signed.

And the overseas chemical dumpsites are presumed to be in international waters, inoculating the U.S. government from legal responsibility, Peter Kaiser said. He's a spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based at The Hague, Netherlands.

"Legally, nothing can be done," said Harigel, a member of the Geneva International Peace Research Institute.

"But from a humanitarian point of view, they need to be pressured to do something."

At the least, Harigel said, the U.S. government should monitor the chemical dumpsites that it created and spread warnings if environmental evidence shows they're leaking.


In recent years, the Army quietly has gone through decades-old classified records and identified five other countries where U.S. chemical-laden bombs, rockets and grenades were thrown into the sea. The names of those countries remain classified, but records at the National Archives provide hints.

The Daily Press uncovered an Aug. 24, 1944, memo - classified at the time as "restricted" - that revealed in which other Allied countries the United States kept stockpiles of chemical weapons during World War II.

Those countries include New Zealand, China, the former Soviet Union and unidentified "Latin American countries."

The United States used parts of Panama as chemical weapons bombing ranges for years. Other National Archives records detail two shipments of unidentified chemical weapons, totaling 20,000 pounds, in 1953 and 1954 from the United States to Fort Amador, Panama.

The Army said it informed the governments of those five unidentified countries in recent years of the dangers lurking off their coasts. But, it said, it was asked by those governments not to release the information to the public.

Two summers ago, researchers for the New Zealand government searched U.S. government records at the National Archives, seeking information on chemical weapons ocean dumpsites, archivist Tim Nenninger said.

Harigel said residents of those unidentified countries should be told by someone - either their governments or the Army - of the potential dangers.

"Whether or not anything can be done at this point, the people there deserve to know," he said. "The danger increases with time. The shells are more and more corroding. The fishermen can easily get this stuff into their nets and get seriously hurt."

Scientists have determined that mustard agent damages DNA, causes cancer and survives for at least five years on the ocean floor in a concentrated gel. Nerve gas lasts at least six weeks in seawater, killing every organism it touches before breaking down into its nonlethal component chemicals.

Chemical-filled munitions now on seabeds are slowly leaking, and more surely will as years pass - depending on the depth of the water, the thickness of the containers and water temperature, according to a 2004 study by Jiri Matousek, a Czech scientist.

The hazard of leaking shells likely will last for "another tens to hundreds of years," he concluded. "It is also without doubt that long-term monitoring at areas of concern is needed as a categorical imperative."

The problem is so bad in the Baltic Sea, Denmark has covered parts of some shallow-water dumpsites with concrete to contain leakage.


The Army has known for decades of its overseas chemical weapons dumps, yet it left other governments to find and deal with the problem on their own.

Japan's problems from U.S. chemical weapons dumping did not come to light until a government inquiry in 1973, after more than 85 fishermen were injured by chemical warfare agents dumped by either U.S. occupation forces or the Japanese military at the close of World War II.

It wasn't until 2003 that Australia found on its own that the Army dumped more than 60 million pounds of chemical weapons off Brisbane. Australia pinpointed precise quantities and nautical coordinates.

The Australian government has posted the area off-limits to mariners and released a well-publicized report on its findings.

The Canadian Department of National Defence has worked for three years to identify offshore chemical weapons dumpsites created by either the U.S. or Canadian military. Three have been found, and the Canadians think the United States might have created one of them.

The well-publicized Warfare Agent Disposal project began after a Halifax, Nova Scotia-area antiques dealer named Myles Kehoe learned that the Canadian military moved some of its post-World War II chemical munitions through Nova Scotia for disposal. When his fisherman father remembered hearing that the ordnance was loaded onto ships and dumped at sea somewhere, alarm bells went off in Kehoe's head.

"He laughed about it," Kehoe said. "They did it all the time, he said."

At Kehoe's insistent prodding, the Canadians are researching about 1,200 other underwater locations their records show might be ordnance dumps.

The Canadian government thinks the United States might have jettisoned chemical weapons about 100 miles off Vancouver Island in British Columbia, north of Washington state. The Army said it had no record that was done but wouldn't rule it out.

"I won't say there's nothing there that belongs to us," said William Brankowitz, a deputy project manager in the Army Chemical Materials Agency. He's a leading authority on the Army's chemical weapons dumping.

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Source: Daily Press

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