Asbestos and mustard gas close part of Miss. island for years
The (Biloxi, Miss.) Sun Herald
OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. -- Thirty acres of Horn Island are off limits to the public -- and may be closed for years -- after hazardous materials from a World War II chemical and biological test site were discovered by environmentalists with a BP oil cleanup crew.
Asbestos tiles that sided buildings at the site were found June 21, the National Park Service announced Monday during a press conference at the park office in Ocean Springs. Dan Brown, superintendent of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, said test results came back Aug. 15 showing the presence of asbestos along with mustard gas at the site.
Brown said one acre of the 2,700-acre island is affected but 30 acres are cordoned off to keep visitors away from the chimney site and lagoon.
"The vast majority of the island is safe and open to the public," said Brown. He plans to hike the island with his daughter in October.
A boat ride to Horn Island following the press conference showed the remnants of a foundation from the test facility on a stretch of sand on the north central side of the island. Newly-posted signs warn people away from the hazards of asbestos exposure.
Crews have been cleaning Horn Island since the BP oil spill two years ago, but Brown said it wasn't until June when environmentalists inspecting the site recognized the possible hazard from the tiles.
"They're broken and scattered throughout the site," he said.
The Park Service hired a private environmental consultant to test for asbestos along with botulism, ricin, mustard gas, pesticides, PCBs, dioxins and mercury, lead and other toxins. Ricin and botulism, both used at the site during World War II, were not found during tests but one of the 12 test sites showed the presence of mustard gas in the sand.
"It's a blister agent," said Brian Cook with the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. The mustard gas attacks the eyes and respiratory system, he said, and three days after exposure blisters form. "It was supposed to disable troops," he said.
Exposure to asbestos can cause cancer or a thinning of the wall of the lung, he said. It often is latent for 10 to 40 years.
Cook said they don't know the extent of the hazards on Horn Island but said anyone who visited the site "many, many, many times" and has health problems should contact a doctor.
"It probably has been there since 1942," he said.
Cook said the U.S. military has an agency that cleans these hazmat sites, which typically takes several years. "That is not uncommon for hazardous waste sites," he said.
No canisters of mustard gas have been found on the island but he said it would have been standard practice in the 1940s to dispose of them in the adjacent lagoon and wetlands since the gas doesn't react with the water.
Brian Hardison with the U.S. Department of the Interior, who is a safety officer during the oil spill cleanup, said libraries in the three Coast counties were contacted after the asbestos tiles were discovered to get documentation on the activities on Horn Island during the war.
The Army Corps of Engineers confiscated Horn Island during World War II for biological warfare experiments. The Army built a commissary, offices and sleeping quarters. Laboratories on the north side of the island were connected to the administration area by a small gauge railroad built by the Seabees.
Accounts in the Sun Herald archives said it was a secret operation where toxins were injected into sheep and rabbits. The animals were incinerated in an oven and the tall furnace chimney was still evident until it was toppled in 1979 during Hurricane Frederic, giving the area the name of "the chimney site."
Brown said the military was looking for an isolated site for testing when they chose Horn Island. "It turned out not to be a good site," he said. Two-thirds of the year the wind blew toward the mainland.
A Pentagon report in November 1993 said Horn Island was one of three sites in Mississippi where nerve agents, mustard gas and other chemical weapons might be buried. An Associated Press article said the Army tested biological weapons from 1943 to 1945 on Horn Island and disposed of 133 German mustard gas bombs there in 1946.
A 1983 newspaper report in The Sun, a predecessor to the Sun Herald, said The U.S. Department of the Army reported to Mississippi officials that after the close of World War II Horn Island was used for the disposal of leaking mustard gas bombs captured from Germany, The report said 140 mustard agent bombs were incinerated and buried on the island in July 1946 by the Army's Chemical Warfare Service.
The biological test site was moved from Horn Island to Dunway Proving Ground in Utah. In the late 1960s gas escaped from that site and reportedly killed several hundred sheep grazing miles away.
Ocean Springs artist Walter Anderson spent 20 years painting and living on Horn Island and many thousands of people have visited the barrier island since it was a test site.
The island is designated a Wilderness Area and now is part of the Gulf Island National Seashore, the ninth most visited national park last year, said the superintendent. He said about 1 million people visit the park in Mississippi each year.
Distributed by MCT Information Services