SciencePunk

The Deadliest Catch

AN UNWELCOME SURPRISE

The WMD was discovered, quite by chance, lying by the side of a Bridgeville road in late July by a Delaware state trooper on an unrelated callout. Jutting out of the ground, the 75mm shell was encrusted in barnacles and pitted with rust; barely recognisable as a munition at all. The trooper called in his find and a military team took the bomb to Dover Air Force Base for disposal. As with most conventional rounds, a small charge was placed on the side of the shell and detonated to trigger the vintage munition’s own explosive. But something went wrong, and the bomb failed to explode.

When the two staff sergeants and technician walked over to inspect the failed detonation, they found a strange black liquid seeping out of the cracked mortar. Given that the shell had been under the sea for the better part of fifty years, the men thought little of the foul-smelling substance until hours later, when their skin began to erupt in agonising blisters. All three were rushed to Kent General hospital, where two were released later after minor treatment. A third, more seriously injured serviceman was transported to Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, where he remained in serious but stable condition with what were only described as “burns or blisters” in a statement issued by the Army later that week. A scientific team were sent to Dover to collect soil samples from the area. The results were clear: the shell had been filled with mustard gas. The United States’ forgotten weapons of mass destruction had returned to haunt it.

x ray of a liquid-filled shell

X ray image of a liquid filled shell. Credit: US Army

Chemical warfare has been around since archers clad in animal skins stroked arrowheads against the backs of poisonous amphibians. Ancient Chinese manuals on war describe recipes for “soul-hunting fog” made of arsenic. Writing in the fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci suggested loading small catapults called mangonels with asphyxiating powders of arsenic sulphide and verdigris. But it was in the nightmarish trenches of the First World War where chemical weapons were adopted as a full-scale tactic. Amongst the mud and shrapnel,

German, French, Russian and British troops unleashed poison gas attacks on one another with rapidly-evolving efficiency. Starting out with huge tanks of chlorine whose contents were carried by favourable winds toward enemy positions, commanders soon recognised that, as Leonardo had suggested, bombardment by artillery was the most effective form of delivery. They filled shells with chlorine, and other agents soon followed: phosgene, lewisite, mustard agent and tear gas, designed to choke, blister, kill and incapacitate. When the guns fell silent in 1918, over 85,000 men had perished in clouds of poisonous gas, and over a million more left injured by them.

Looking out over gently swirling water of the Christina River from a booth in Harry’s Seafood Grill in Wilmington, Delaware, it’s hard to imagine a scene more distant from the trenches of the Somme. The city is clean, almost sterile. Traffic whirs over the pivoting iron bridge that connects the cluster of gleaming business headquarters to high rise condominiums on the other side of the water. Parks and walkways are well-maintained but bereft of citizens. At night, the scattered restaurants are populated by lone men dining on expense accounts. South of Wilmington however, the state is a largely agricultural area, and viewed with some derision by northern residents. “The toothbrush had to have been invented there” quips the bartender to me. “Anywhere else and it would have been called a teethbrush”. The original Mason-Dixon Line that separates the US into North and South neatly bisected Delaware in 1763, and the partisan attitude has remained ever since.

Walking through the streets of Wilmington, you quickly realise that one of the most influential names in the city is Du Pont, the extraordinarily wealthy family whose gunpowder business grew into the world’s second-largest chemical company, developing neoprene, nylon, Kevlar, Lycra, Teflon and more in the process. Wilmington’s grandest hotel bears the Du Pont name, as do streets, a high school, theatre, country club, nature reserve, children’s hospital and more. But residents in the southern counties were recipients of a different kind of chemical legacy: shells filled with lethal agents produced by Army bomb factories.

CLAMSHELLS AND BOMB SHELLS

It all began in November 2003, when 66-year-old Ed Banning was building a new home on thirteen acres of land in rural Bridgeville. In order to lay down a driveway, the soft clay soil had to be hardened by mixing fine gravel into it. A popular choice in the area is a fill made from crushed clamshells. The crushed shells are a cheap alternative to other pavings: a fifty tonne delivery of crushed shells costs just $600, and the brackish smell fades after a couple of weeks. Covering the same area with stone, asphalt or concrete can cost anywhere between three and ten times as much. So for many Delaware residents, clamshell fill is the only affordable alternative to driving along rutted dirt paths. The shells themselves are a by-product of the state’s seafood industry, and a highly lucrative one at that. In the 1930s, before the advent of synthetic fertilisers, it was possible for oyster and clam shells to fetch higher profits than the meat within. These days, most waste shells are destined for landscaping jobs such as Banning’s, or are dumped back into the Delaware Bay to provide a surface on which young clams attach.

Banning had a large area to cover, several hundred yards by his estimate, leading from his driveway, encircling the barn and up to his house. Over several months, he laboriously spread his new driveway by hand, a few yards at a time. As he did, he began to notice lumps of rusted metal sticking out of the gravel. “I didn’t think anything of it at first” he tells me in a slow lilt, “because a lot of them were broken up stuff. Then I saw one and I thought, yup, that’s a grenade”. Banning wasn’t fazed by the discovery. He simply put the grenade to one side, and continued spreading the clamshell mix. Each time Banning set to work, he found another vintage grenade or two to add to his collection. Many of them were the familiar pineapple-shaped hand grenades, but Banning also found rifle grenades, a projectile attached to the end of a gun and launched using a modified round. One day, he picked another clue: two rifle cartridges bearing a faint inscription: BSCO 1918. Rounds forged by neighbouring Maryland’s Bethlehem Steel Company had resurfaced in Banning’s driveway 85 years later. By the time Banning finished his driveway in February, he had collected over thirty complete grenades. Gathering them all in a steel bucket, Banning loaded them in the back of his pickup and drove over to Delaware State Police’s Troop 5 Garage, where a friend of his worked. “I told my buddy what I had and his eyes got real big and he said ‘Well where is it?’. I said it was outside and he said ‘What do you mean?! It might blow up!’”, Banning laughs. State troopers placed a call to the nearby Dover Air Force Base, home of the 436th Civil Engineers Squadron’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal. Making safe unexploded military ordnance is automatically the responsibility of the US forces, who have the training and familiarity with the weapons necessary to handle them safely. The grenades were taken away, chalked up as quirk, and life in downstate Delaware continued as normal.

Then a month later, a man out for a Saturday night stroll happened upon a live mortar lying to the side of a service road that linked the Port Demarva and Rehoboth Bay mobile home communities. Once again the Dover Air Force EOD was despatched, taking away the round. Whilst they swept the surrounding area, two more grenades were discovered: an American WWII-era Mark II hand grenade, and a French rifle grenade dating to the First World War. The next week, in early April, a farmer in the southern reaches of Sussex county found more munitions on his property. This time a hefty 30mm anti-aircraft shell was discovered, as well as French and British hand grenades. As news about the discoveries spread, residents became more concerned. Hearing about the most recent find in nearby Laurel, poultry farmer Bill Layton scoured his own driveway, and within minutes spotted a suspicious grey object buried in the crushed shell. Poking at it with a stick, he retrieved a corroded grenade just forty feet from his back door. Once again the specialists from Dover arrived, this time recovering a further thirteen grenades. A single 800-foot long private road in Bridgeville offered up seventy pieces of ordnance. In Gumboro, resident David Austin found what looked like a ten-inch long missile, complete with fins.

Keeping track of this growing count from a tiny closet office at The News Journal, local journalist Terri Sanginiti grew increasingly alarmed. As the editor of the police blotter, Sanginiti spent most of her days with one ear on a scanner, listening out for anything out of the ordinary. Part of the dying breed of old-school journalists, Sanginiti once spend all night camped outside the mansion of a wealthy Du Pont heir who barricaded himself inside after shooting dead his friend. When she tried to leave in the morning, she found the bitter cold had frozen her tyres into the mud. “And I was still back in work by four, as usual” she tells me, without a hint of complaint. When we finally meet in a Delaware restaurant, she looks nothing like the hard-boiled hack I had pictured in my mind. Dressed in a white turtleneck and red wool coat, she exudes an air of laid-back geniality. On her lapel is a Phillies badge, and I realise the team is playing tonight against the Yankees in the final of the World Series. Sanginiti dismisses my apology with a wave of her hand. “I only watch the eight and ninth innings” she whispers conspiratorially. Once we sit down and start talking about the munitions though, the geniality evaporates as her passions rise. A man turning in a bucket of hand grenades to police was a curio for the blotter, a quirky story. As more and more weapons turned up though, the columns grew and pushed closer to the front page. But no one seemed to know what to do about it, or who was responsible. The Army could not explain why vintage munitions had suddenly begun turning up in driveways in Delaware. And as nobody knew where the next might turn up, neither could the Army explain how to prevent it happening again. A call to the Department for Natural Resources and Environmental Control proved equally fruitless. “We may have a role from the standpoint that we’re an agency that deals with environmental incidents,” deputy secretary David Small admitted to reporters, before adding, “it may well be that the clams are coming from ocean waters outside the state’s jurisdiction”. It was clear that the munitions had been dredged up from the ocean in harvests of clams. But there had been no reports from any clam processing plants on the east coast of ordnance turning up in batches of shells. Nor had any haulers of the clamshell mix discovered corroded munitions in their stock. It was as if the explosives only became visible once in public. Police reports of each new discovery were accompanied with stern warnings that stray munitions were to be reported immediately and not handled. It was as if a single munition was a worry, but dozens turning up almost at once was business as usual. Perhaps it was the case that the munitions were turning up in the wrong place to get attention. The wealthier metropolitan residents of Delaware tend not to use clamshell fill, preferring more attractive and expensive paving for their homes. I ask Sanginiti whether things would have been different had the munitions resurfaced in upstate properties. “Oh yeah” she nods, “Definitely. They weren’t going to do something about this until someone got hurt.”

With three servicemen now lying in hospital, injured by a weapon of mass destruction, officials could no longer ignore the problem of the rogue munitions. On August 4, the U.S. Army announced a $6 million plan to locate and stem the source of the clamshell ordnance. The investigation was led by Robert Williams Jnr of the Army’s Corps of Engineers. It seemed like an impossible task – Williams couldn’t search every clamshell-topped road in the state, and even if he did, there’d be no guarantee he could complete the survey before one of the hidden weapons detonated. Worse still, nobody knew how the munitions were getting from the ocean into driveways, and how to stop more arriving. Then Williams was handed a gigantic stroke of luck: interviews with everyone who discovered ordnance in their driveways revealed that they had all purchased their clamshell mix from one hauler, Perry Butler. And Perry Butler had an exclusive contract to collect waste clamshells from one Milford clam processing plant: SeaWatch International.

As Delaware’s only clam processor, suspicion had already been placed on the Milford plant. In spite of initial claims that no ordnance had been found on site, when the U.S. Army turned their attention to the factory, it was already the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. On inspecting the facility, their suspicions were confirmed: twelve munitions were recovered onsite. Workers had picked the highly unstable ordnance off the conveyor lines and stored them in a bucket of water in the basement. The munitions that they did not spot had been first plunged into conditioning tanks with the live clams, passed through steam cookers, and then raked across an industrial shucker that violently shakes the cooked meat from the shells. From there, the ordnance was picked up by Perry Butler, hidden in containers of empty clamshells, who passed them through a grinder that pulverised the shells into gravel before selling the fill on to various downstate residents. That none of the munitions exploded at any point was nothing short of miraculous. That no chemical rounds had broken open or leaked, even more so. SeaWatch International was fined $9,000 by OSHA for endangering staff and only permitted to continue business with the installation of $15,000 metal detector. Just three days later, the buzzer sounded. Workers reported the discovery of a 75mm shell, identical to the one that had injured three servicemen at Dover.

In Maryland a phone rang on the desk of Laurence G. Gottschalk, Project Manager of the U.S. Army’s Non-Stockpile Chemical Materials Project. This time there’d be no mistakes.

THE CLEAN-UP CREW

In 1997 the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force, prohibiting the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. This marked the beginning of a lengthy project in the USA to dismantle and disarm the world’s largest collection of chemical weapons: around 290,000 tonnes of phosgene, lewisite, sulphur mustard, VX, Sarin and Tabun. The bulk of this work is carried out in specialised military facilities, and many weapons factories have been redesigned to destroy the very same chemical warfare armaments they created. The attacks on 9/11 heightened fears that storage bunkers filled with chemical agent could be targeted by terrorists and as a result, the process of decommission was sped up. By December 2008, over 58% of the stockpile had been destroyed. Current estimates place the end of the decommission programme in 2023.

However, not all of the military’s chemicals weapons are accounted for, meaning that munitions often up outside of the official stockpile. Small amounts of chemical materiel that were lost, or buried and forgotten, resurface. When military land is sold off and passed back into public hands, new owners occasionally discover an unwelcome relic hidden in the ground. Unlike the well-managed stockpile, these ‘wild’ chemical weapons are rife with unknowns. The type of agent, its age and condition must all be determined; technicians also need to know whether the weapon has been armed, primed, or even fired already. And all this has to be done on scene, without opening the shell. The Non-Stockpile Chemical Munitions Project (NSCMP), based at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, was founded in 1992 to deal with these stray WMDs in a safe, effective and environmentally-friendly manner. And they’re busy.

Stepping off the train at the Aberdeen Amtrak station, I’m met by Karen Jolly, Public Affairs Specialist at the Army’s Chemical Materials Agency. After several months of negotiations, including a terse call from the Pentagon, I’ve been granted permission to meet the people who are steadily dismantling America’s weapons of mass destruction. A chatty mother-of-two, Jolly has the sharp dress sense and charisma of a public liaison. She is also a formidable expert on her subject, and the conversation during our drive to the base is  peppered with military acronyms.  A pair of Black Hawk helicopters and a twin-rotor Chinook roar overhead as Karen and I pass through the security checkpoint into Aberdeen Proving Ground. A sprawling complex that covers almost 300 square kilometres and incorporates the Edgewood Arsenal, APG is large enough to be census-designated (population: 3,116). It’s also the U.S. Army’s oldest active proving ground, which has its problems – whole clusters of buildings are resting on several feet of virgin earth trucked in from out of state, to avoid having to sink foundations into ground littered with unexploded munitions.

Our first port of call here is neither a scientist nor an engineer. Yet few people know more about chemical weapons than Jeffery Smart, who for 25 years has been military historian with the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command. As a part of the Materiel Assessment Review Board, Smart’s role is to draw upon his wealth of knowledge to provide information about the likely content of found munitions. “You don’t just point the analysis equipment and get ‘BING – this is mustard agent’” explains Jolly, “You get data. And the data has to be analysed. You don’t want to drill a hole and take a sample.” Smart nods in agreement: “Yeah, we don’t do the sniff test anymore” he laughs. The sniff test is exactly what it sounds like. Between 1928 and 1969, around one hundred thousand kits containing small vials of chemical warfare agent were produced to train soldiers in detecting, identifying and handling chemical warfare agents. These Chemical Agent Identification Sets would contain small amounts of agents such as mustard, sarin, phosgene, lewisite, chloropicrin, or simulants, soaked into lumps of charcoal. One of the exercises was to identify the agent by smell. Tabun, also known as GA, has a fruity odour, while phosgene is reminiscent of freshly cut grass. Lewisite smells of geraniums. True to its name, mustard agent has a faint aroma similar to mustard or horseradish. Due to the relatively low toxicity of these kits, and their abundance, they are one of the more frequent relics of the USA’s chemical warfare programme to resurface in unexpected places.

As well as providing invaluable info to the NSCMP, Smart curates a small museum dedicated to the history of chemical warfare, which we walk through as he discusses his work. Display cases are packed with photos, diagrams, vintage equipment, respirators, deactivated munitions, and dozens of different sized shells, many cut away to expose their inner workings. One case is given over completely to gas masks. Staring back at me is the unmistakable face of a Combine soldier from Half Life 2 (in reality, a Russian-issue WWII mask). As I kneel in front of the cabinet, I spot a gas mask that is far too small for a fully-grown soldier, and which bears a striking resemblance to the world’s most famous mouse. Smart explains: “Back in World War One, we never really had the concept that civilian populations were going to be attacked with chemical warfare agents. When the German Blitz against London began, we realised that civilian populations had to be protected. We had to develop civilian masks, and something that a child would be willing to wear. So they actually got Walt Disney to come here to Edgewood, and he designed this Mickey Mouse mask.”

Resting at the bottom of another cabinet is an olive green shell about the size of a Coke bottle. “That’s the 75” Smart tells me. “The most popular, you could say,” he adds in a quiet voice. Hundreds of thousands of these 75s were built during WWI. “We filled them here at Edgewood, with mustard agent for instance. Then we shipped them, without fuses, to the Western Front. The last batches weren’t wanted when they got there, so they came back.” A single shell amongst those returning batches had somehow ended up in a Bridgeville driveway, before unleashing its deadly contents on three servicemen at Dover Air Force Base. Contrary to its name, mustard gas is actually a viscous fluid with the consistency of motor oil. Volatile gasses such as phosgene eventually leak from their shells and dissipate. Mustard does the opposite. If an ocean-dumped munition rusts through, the chemical agent reacts with seawater and turns into a sludge, plugging the hole and preserving the remaining agent. The effects on humans are not immediate, meaning most people do not realise they’ve come into contact with mustard agent until hours later. However, once the agent begins to take effect, the pain is unparalleled. A British nurse treating the victims of gas attacks in the First World War wrote:

“They cannot be bandaged or touched. We cover them with a tent of propped-up sheets. Gas burns must be agonizing because usually the other cases do not complain even with the worst wounds but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out”.

I ask Smart how long the agent will last inside one of these shells. “In a sealed container, that has no exposure to air or anything like that, mustard agent will stay in pretty good shape,” he says. On our way out, we pass a six foot long metal cylinder that once held a ton of mustard agent. The contents of nearly two thousand of these have been drained and neutralised at Aberdeen Proving Ground alone, although many of the tanks themselves are still waiting to be decontaminated. Jolly taps a label stencilled in blue paint at the end of the container. “Three Xs. This one’s been cleaned”.

PEEKING INSIDE PANDORA’S BOX

Driving though its leafy lanes, Aberdeen Proving Ground can look more like a university campus than a military base. The buildings are a mixture of laboratories, engineering sheds, houses, dorms, and offices. At one end is a small dockyard packed with yachts. Nestled into the woods near the crowded marina is an anonymous brick warehouse, where the NSCMP team are waiting to meet me.

When a munition is uncovered and a chemical fill cannot be ruled out, a call goes out to the 20th Support Command, who serve military operations and civil authorities in cases involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high explosive (CBRNE) threats. Their mission is to figure out what the Army is dealing with. The twelve-man team are ready to respond nationwide, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When they do, the team roll out in the Mobile Munitions Assessment System. A white Chevrolet C5500 retrofitted by Farber Speciality Vehicles, the MMAS is both a laboratory and command centre. Innocuous from the outside, on board is a generator, weather monitoring station, satellite uplink, over-pressurisation system, non-invasive assessment equipment, protective equipment – and a microwave oven filled with snacks. It’s an important feature when even the simplest assessment can take twelve hours.

Officially the NSCMP and the 20th Support Command are present to provide support and information to the commander who has found himself the unhappy recipient of a chemical weapon. It’s a responsibility they take very seriously. Every step of the way is marked by careful planning and methodical action. When handling a canister filled with nerve agent, nobody wants to learn from hindsight. As Chief of Operations Dalys Talley likes to say, “We provide the right answer, the first time”.

He leads me through a typical callout for the team. On arrival, the first job is to ensure the munition is safe. Although this work is usually carried out by the local EOD team who recovered the munition, the assessment team always has at least two members qualified to disarm weapons. Once that is done, the round is overpacked in a leak-proof metal cylinder filled with vermiculite so it can be handled safely.

Charles Maddox is the equipment operator on board the MMAS. The youngest member of the crew, bomb disposal runs in his family – his father Robert Maddox is unexploded ordnance manager with the CBRNE team. His job is to identify a “liquid line” inside the shell. Contrary to Michael Bay’s vision of tiny glass ampules dangling in a string of pearls, most real-life chemical weapons are little more than hollowed-out shells. Maddox shows me how the team use a digital radiography and computed tomography device to view the liquid line. The powerful continuous beam x ray machine that can build a high-resolution 3D model of a suspect device in minutes. By slightly tilting the munition to one side, the liquid fill acts as a spirit level, showing up as a horizontal line. But this isn’t conclusive proof. Test shells might be filled with inert fluids the same density as chemical agent. Mustard agent freezes at 14˚C, so on a cold day the munition may need to be warmed up to get an accurate reading. Rainwater can infiltrate an old shell, giving the appearance of a chemical fill, or worse, making a shell filled with deadly chemical agent look like a binary weapon containing two separate compartments of relatively harmless chemical precursor. To really know what is hidden inside a munition, Maddox uses the portable isotopic neutron spectroscopy (PINS) system. Loaded with a hunk of radioactive californium-252, the device shoots a pulsed beam of neutrons which easily pass through the steel walls of a munition. When the beam interacts with chemicals inside the shell, gamma rays are scattered and picked up by a nearby detector. The energies and intensities of these gamma rays give clues as to the elements present inside the munition. The only drawback is that the germanium crystal detector has to be kept ice cold for the system to function. The MMAS holds a twenty-litre Dewar of liquid nitrogen at -210°C, but it’s often not enough. “One of the biggest problems we have when we go anywhere is trying to get hold of liquid nitrogen” says Maddox. There are other dangers to watch out for too: the x ray emitter is so powerful that anyone standing nearby will absorb a lifetime’s worth of occupational radiation exposure within moments. Because most shells are dealt with on military sites, Maddox finds a handy bunker to hide in while the device is in operation.

THE BOMB EATER

The three 75mm shells found in a crate of fresh clams at SeaWatch International were transported to Dover Air Force Base to await analysis. Tests carried out by the NSCMP team confirmed their suspicions: all three contained deadly mustard agent. There are facilities for decommissioning chemical warfare materiel dotted around the US, typically built close to large chemical weapon stockpiles. Bases in Maryland, Utah, and Oregon can safely dispose of chemical weapons. However, tight Federal restrictions on moving chemical materiel makes even transporting it across the state line from Delaware to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland a logistic and bureaucratic nightmare. To counter this problem, Army chiefs had come up with a clever solution: why not bring the bomb disposal factory to the bomb?

Even stripped of its skin, the Phase 2 Explosive Destruction System is a behemoth, as if Optimus Prime had a big brother who enlisted in the Army. A gleaming silver bomb disposal plant built onto a 40 foot trailer, the heart of the EDS is an impregnable steel chamber. Inside this, old munitions are blown apart and decontaminated. The stainless steel drum weighs four and half tonnes and can withstand a blast from around two kilos of TNT. Greg Nielson is the man in charge of this thirty tonne weapon-eating goliath. A stocky man with close cropped hair, he speaks in a plain uncluttered way that suits an engineer. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Phase 2, I went over to the door and it wouldn’t push. I actually had to use leverage against one of the supports to get it closed” he says with evident awe. “Once this gets buttoned up, nothing is coming out until we open the door”. The nine inch thick door weighs one and a half tonnes, and is held shut with enough hydraulic pressure to deform large single-use metal seal. Just to make sure, the chamber is pumped full of helium. If Nielson’s three-man team detects any of these tiny molecules escaping, the destruction is called off. Recovered munitions are placed inside the containment vessel wrapped in shaped cutting charges that look like thin ribbons of metal. These slice the munition into pieces, exposing the chemical agent inside. Fantasies of earth-shaking blasts are quickly dispelled. “It’s pretty disappointing,” says Jolly “If you were a hundred feet away you wouldn’t even know.” From there, Nielson pumps in what he calls his “recipes” – specific neutralising chemicals that break down the toxins inside the chamber. For the mustard-filled shells recovered at SeaWatch, Nielson used a solution of monoethanolamine. “We’ll pump in MEA from after the detonation occurs, then we have to heat it to 60˚C. Then we extract a liquid sample without opening the door, and have it tested. We’ll continue until we meet our treatment goal, which for mustard is less than fifty parts per million”. Once done, the waste is drained into fifty-five gallon drums and sent away for further treatment. Like a titanic washing machine, the entire system can heat up to 100˚C and rotate to facilitate the agitation and breakdown of the chemical agent inside. The one thing it can’t do is cool down – after the steam clean, Nielson’s team have to leave the drum overnight before its contents are cool enough to handle.

The prototype Phase 1 EDS was a smaller system with just half the drum capacity. “We blew it up,” Nielson says, before hurriedly adding “On purpose of course. We wanted to validate the net explosive weight capacity. Well, the only way you can really do that is to take one up to failure.” With the advent of the Phase 2, the number of rounds the EDS could digest at once is doubled, so a job can be completed in half the time. “Now we’re looking at a super EDS,” Nielson says “where we could maybe double that again.” Authorities are impressed with the performance of the EDS, and it’s now being called upon for non-chemical jobs, such as disposing of surplus smoke rounds in Alabama. I ask Nielson if bomb disposal takes a certain kind of personality – why did he take the job at Aberdeen Proving Ground? He thinks about it for a moment, then deadpans: “Well, it was a shorter commute”.

After the mustard round injured three servicemen at Dover, Nielson was on the team that travelled there to clean up the site. “They misidentified” he says plainly. “When we went over they had a storage box, and inside that they had all their personal effects, you know, all their wallets, their issued knives, their clothing, everything they had on. They didn’t know. The one guy in particular who got burned, he goes home, he hugs his kid, he hugs his wife… he’s just cross-contaminating everything. Not a good situation.” I ask Nielson what happened to the badly-injured sergeant taken to Temple University Hospital. “He’s out of the service now,” he replies. Nielson doesn’t elaborate, and I don’t ask.

L.O.S.T. AT SEA

With the close of the First World War, both defeated and victorious nations of the world were left holding thousands of tonnes of lethal chemical weaponry and no one to launch them at. The weapons were dangerous to transport and difficult to store. And nobody really knew how to neutralize their contents. So it’s easy to see how dumping the weapons in the deep ocean, out of harm’s way, was seen as a sensible solution. Entire ships were loaded with munitions, chemical and conventional alike, and sailed out to sea where the cargo was thrown overboard. As part of the CHASE program (“Cut Holes And Sink ‘Em), entire ships filled with weapons and unwanted hardware were scuttled, some detonating on their way to the seabed. For many decades, countries cast their surplus chemical weapons into ocean water and forgot about them. Over a quarter million tonnes of British bombs filled with mustard and phosgene gas and the nerve agent Tabun lie in the waters around the UK, concentrated off the west coast of Scotland. Somewhere between 50,000 and 300,000 tonnes of German, Soviet, US and British chemical agent lies in the shallow Baltic Sea. The USA has also admitted to dumping toxic materiel off the coastlines of other nations rather than risk carrying the volatile cargo home. The James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies lists 127 known dumpsites across the world, it’s likely even more exist.

The prevailing theory was that the seawater would render any chemical agent inert, and that the cargo itself would lie undisturbed at the bottom of the ocean. And for the most part, these two assumptions held true. Some weapons, however, didn’t make it as far as the deep ocean. Imprecise navigation, and perhaps lack of discipline, meant that of the estimated 64 million pounds of chemical weapons dumped into the Atlantic, huge portions were thrown overboard in relatively shallow water. Sometimes the canisters floated on the surface, so the soldiers simply shot holes in them until they sank. The practice was carried out from 1944 to the 1970s, when ocean dumping was banned. But it was from these rogue dump sites that a rash of munitions spread across southern Delaware decades later. Drawing on Sanginiti’s early investigations, Virginia-based newspaper The Daily Press published a three-part special report into the dumping. Readers were outraged to learn that the U.S. Army had been so cavalier in their disposal of deadly armaments – and so too were politicians. U.S. Representative for New Jersey Rob Andrews demanded the military share everything they knew about the dumps. Fearing local sites, New Zealand issued a formal query through diplomatic channels asking for disclosure of any U.S. weapons dumped off their coasts. Under increasing pressure, the Army conducted a search of all records of ocean dumping to identify any further locations that munitions might be found. However, few records exist and many are so vague they are useless. Some simply locate the dump site as “Pacific”. The truth is that many of these dumps will only be discovered when they are stumbled into by unwitting mariners.

As undersea resources are increasingly explored and exploited, the threat from these hidden weapons of mass destruction is growing. Russia and Finland already conduct annual surveys of the Baltic Sea, tracking the drift of weapons dumped there. In 1983, an Australian trawler snagged a one-ton container filled with mustard agent dumped off Port Moreton and dragged it to shore. And that’s just what stays inside the canisters. Hundreds of people, typically fishermen, have been injured after coming into contact with globules of agent that escaped from dumped munitions. Slightly denser than seawater but completely insoluble, spilled mustard agent can roll along the seabed for weeks in a deadly gel. In 1987, hundreds of dolphins washed ashore in Virginia and New Jersey covered in burns reminiscent of exposure to the blistering agent (EDIT: This was determined to be a result of a toxic algal bloom, see Bill Brankowitz’s comments below). In 1995, four-year-old Gordon Baillie was left with burns to his hand and legs after picking up an incendiary device on a beach near Campbeltown, west Scotland. Thousands of similar munitions washed ashore that month, disturbed by engineers laying a new undersea pipeline for British Gas.

CLOSING THE NET

Now that Robert Williams knew where the munitions were coming from, the Corps of Engineers began searching the clam fishing vessels chartered by SeaWatch International. They found accidentally recovered munitions onboard thirty three ships. But everyone involved knew that there was no way to stop the fishing vessels dredging up new munitions. Several known dumpsites off the coast of New Jersey are marked out on nautical charts, but it’s not illegal to trawl there. If one group of fishermen avoids the zone, it simply means there are more scallops and clams there for another. In addition, the exact co-ordinates of the dumps are unknown – the munitions are simply somewhere within an area covering some hundred square miles. When you add in the possibility of materiel drifting from those dumps, and the presence of entirely unknown sites, it’s inevitable that some weapons will return home on board fishing boats. Some larger vessels have metal detectors on board, many do not.

With the source of the clamshell weapons identified, the Army Corps of Engineers still had to make sure that of the thousands of tonnes of fill Perry Butler had delivered, not a single one contained any munitions. And there was only one way to do it. Every one of the 156 customers on his books had to be visited and their property meticulously searched by bomb disposal teams. In a statement given to Sanginiti, the Corps of Engineers declared that they were prepared to pay $20 million to rid the state of its unwanted weaponry. And so Ed Banning returned from the shops one day to find his driveway cordoned off by the military and his driveway divided into quadrants marked out in taut string. A group of technicians in bomb-proof suits were waving large metal-detecting wands methodically over each section. Banning was indignant: “They told me not to go up the lane and I said ‘Well this is where I live!’”. After spending almost a thousand dollars on a new driveway, the beleaguered resident found he couldn’t even use it. And with good reason: technicians uncovered a further 86 munitions. Speaking at the time, Banning told Sanginiti he was thinking of getting the driveway blacktopped. “I don’t want the clamshells any more,” he moaned. “I wish I had never gotten them. It’s been a nightmare.”

Nobody in the USA knows when the next stray chemical weapon will surface, or where. But one thing is for certain: when it does, the men and women of the NSCMP will be ready to roll out.

Comments

  1. #1 Vince Whirlwind
    September 17, 2012

    What a great read. Thank you.

  2. #2 Dave Clarke
    Fairfax, VA
    September 18, 2012

    It’s a very fascinating and scary subject. Thank you for such a well written article.

  3. #3 James Gilbreath
    Birmingham, AL
    September 21, 2012

    What a fascinating (and disturbing) read. Thank you for sharing with us.

  4. #4 Sean Kelly
    Australia
    September 21, 2012

    Great article, though one error I noticed was in the 5th para under The Cleanup Crew section. The London Blitz was in the Second World War, and as Mickey Mouse didn’t debut until 1928, it would also be impossible for Walt Disney to create a children’s gas mask during the First World War.

  5. #5 Frank Swain
    September 21, 2012

    @Sean – An error of clarity – the concept that civilians might be attacked by gas first occurred during the Blitz; the Mickey Mouse mask came later.

  6. #6 J Piper
    September 24, 2012

    A point of clarification:
    In the past, Edgewood Arsenal (EA) and Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) were two separate bases. The two areas are now combined – well, Edgewood was added to APG to become APG-Edgewood Area.
    The author mentions Edgewood a couple of times but unless one knows the history or lives nearby, the reader may not understand the connection between the two places.

  7. […] The Deadliest Catch – "The WMD was discovered, quite by chance, lying by the side of a Bridgeville road in late July by a Delaware state trooper on an unrelated callout. Jutting out of the ground, the 75mm shell was encrusted in barnacles and pitted with rust; barely recognisable as a munition at all. The trooper called in his find and a military team took the bomb to Dover Air Force Base for disposal… When the two staff sergeants and technician walked over to inspect the failed detonation, they found a strange black liquid seeping out of the cracked mortar. Given that the shell had been under the sea for the better part of fifty years, the men thought little of the foul-smelling substance until hours later, when their skin began to erupt in agonising blisters." Frank Swain explains how hundreds, if not thousands, of chemical weapons such as mustard gas shells, dumped at sea from after the Great War onwards, are coming back to haunt the inhabitants of Delaware. […]

  8. #8 Frank Swain
    September 24, 2012

    Thanks J Piper – I’ve added a note into the main text.

  9. #9 Wesley Dodson
    September 26, 2012

    Awesome article.

  10. #10 Bill Brankowitz
    Pennsylvania
    October 4, 2012

    Frank, a very well written article. However, as one of the former Project Managers for Non-Stockpile Chemical Materiel (prior to my retirement and Mr. Gottschalk taking over), I have a few constructive criticisms for you:

    1. The Chemical Weapons Convention was implemented in 1997…not 1993 as stated in the article. However, planning for such an agreement did begin at about that time along with a bilateral agreement with Russia. The CWC came on a bit later.

    2. The principal German nerve agent developed during WWII was GA which is Tabun. They also developed GB which is Sarin, and GD which is Soman. You confused GB and GA in the article.

    3. The stockpile which is currently being destroyed had a storage location in Oregon (Umatilla Chemical Depot) not Arizona as stated in the article. Historically there was a storage location in Arizona (Navajo Army Depot) but they had not stored chemical agents since the 1950s.

    4. The Dolphin event in 1987 was found to have been the result of a “red tide”. This was confirmed by a maritime research lab at the time. A red tide is caused, I understand, by seaweed exuding a toxin, which is eaten by crabs, and the crabs were eaten by the dolphins. There turned out to be no toxic event caused by chemical weapons in this event. althought there was much concern at the time.

    One other thought I will offer is that the vast majority of these sea disposals were conducted in extremely deep water with no possibility of accidental recovery. Unfortunately there are a few…such as the New Jersey and Delaware site from the SS Eleanor (WWI)… that were in shallower waters. These shallow water sites are the ones the Army helps to mitigate by use of the EDS. I frequently see concern about the deep water sites expressed as “What happens when these items leak?” The fact is that some of these sites are so deep that the weapons crushed and leaked decades ago…there is nothing left to leak.

    It is very nice to see the EDS crew getting some positive publicity. Enginners such as Greg, and the crew of the EDS frequently work long hours and sometimes dangerouse jobs without the credit of being soldiers, policemen, or firemen. I think they deserve the same respect for the difficult and valuable work they do. I appreciate your article bringing this forward.

    Bill Brankowitz
    Retired Project Manager for Non-Stockpile Chemical Materiel

  11. #11 Frank Swain
    October 5, 2012

    Thanks Bill – I’m really pleased you liked the piece. Many thanks for pointing out the errors in text, I’ve updated the article to reflect them. The EDS team are indeed a fantastic and much unsung bunch, and it was really enjoyable to meet them and see what they do. Hopefully I’ll re-visit the threat reduction theme again, I’m sure there are plenty of great untold stories.

  12. #12 Virginia Fishing Stock
    October 13, 2012

    […] The Deadliest Catch [SciencePunk]AN UNWELCOME SURPRISE The WMD was discovered, quite by chance, lying by the side of a Bridgeville road in late July by a Delaware state trooper on an unrelated callout. Jutting out of the ground, the 75mm shell was encrusted in barnacles and pitted with rust; barely recognisable as a munition at all. The trooper… … Read News […]

  13. […] just dump extraneous supplies of mustard gas and other chemical weapons into the open ocean or under Delaware roadways or just big pits at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama—no, no, now we have to dispose of it in a […]

  14. […] just dump extraneous supplies of mustard gas and other chemical weapons into the open ocean or under Delaware roadways or just big pits at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama—no, no, now we have to dispose of it in a […]

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