Professor wants to clear Gulf of US bombs
The (Bryan, Texas) Eagle
Texas A&M William Bryant is dedicated to cleaning up the ocean, specifically the millions of pounds of unexploded bombs and munitions dumped into coastal waters by the U.S. military after World War II.
And the oceanographer has no qualms about sharing his research. His audience Monday in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was especially attentive: It was the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions, a nonprofit that seeks to create an internationally binding treaty on underwater biological, chemical, conventional and radiological weapons.
“Dumping this type of material in the sea, we ought to at least have an index of what it is,” Bryant said. “We’d like to know what’s there, how much of it is there and how long it’s going to stay there. It’s the study of the environment — that’s what we do.”
If it can be done safely, Bryant said the weapons should be removed.
The military dumped unused bombs and possibly chemical weapons into the Gulf of Mexico and off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts starting at least from the time of the end of the war until the practice was made illegal by national treaty in 1970.
Decades later, researchers and marine biologists have become increasingly worried about the relics that are rusting on the sea floor.
“No one really knew until recently,” Bryant said. “It wasn’t a secret or anything, but no one paid attention to it specifically.”
How many weapons or, as the military describes them, “unexploded ordnance” were dumped is unknown, even to the military.
“The best guess is that at least 31 million pounds of bombs were dumped, but that could be a very conservative estimate,” Bryant said.
Bryant’s focus is on the Gulf of Mexico, where he first came across the weapons 25 years ago doing underwater research. He said there are seven dump sites in the Gulf of Mexico, each 81 square miles or larger, but worries there could be more unreported sites. Another 10 dump sites have been located 60 miles from the U.S. coast, Bryant said, and the rest are about 100 miles offshore. Two of the ordnance dump sites are located near the Texas coast.
It’s also unknown, Bryant said, what exactly the military dumped into the waters. The professor said an insoluble white liquid leaking out of some of the containers matches characteristics of mustard gas.
“Now the Army denies it and says, ‘It’s not. How do you know it is?,’” Bryant said. “Well, I’m not going to go stick my fingers in mustard gas. In that sense, I can’t prove it without a doubt.”
Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Col. Tom Crosson could not be reached Monday for comment.
While most everyone agrees that dangerous weapons rusting, and possibly leaking, in the Gulf wasn’t a good thing, opinions on how to tackle the problem varied.
“We kinda have a lose-lose situation,” said John Hocevar, marine biologist with Greenpeace, an environmental nonprofit.
Hocevar said leaving the weapons in the coastal waters could damage marine ecosystems, contaminate fish that people eat and injure fishermen who accidentally catch the ordnance. But trying to recover the weapons could result in spills or worse, which could be worse than leaving them for now, he said.
The experts agreed that the amount of research into how the munitions would impact marine habitats was lacking.
“These things were not designed with the effects of fish and other marine life in mind,” Hocevar said. “They’re designed to kill people and in some cases other kinds of life as well.”
Both Bryant and Hocevar worried about unattended explosives.
“These bombs that are out there, it’s pretty hard to set off a bomb,” Bryant said. “Now, if someone grabs one and tries to use it that’s something else ... They’re fairly easily accessible in the sense that if one was determined, one could do it.”
Hocevar agreed that security precautions were needed.
“The mustard gas, it’s hard to get your head around how much there is,” Hocevar said. “Tons and tons in very large containers. And there’s also Sarin. These are the things that terrorists would love to get a hold of and these are just sitting down there.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services