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Time Bomb: Unexploded Military Ordnance In Gulf Poses Threat To Shipping; 'It's Been 40 To 60 Years'

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Millions of pounds of unexploded bombs and other military ordnance that were dumped decades ago in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as off the coasts of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, could now pose serious threats to shipping lanes and the 4,000 oil and gas rigs in the Gulf, warns two Texas A&M University oceanographers.

William Bryant and Neil Slowey, professors of oceanography who have more than 90 years of combined research experience in all of the Earth's oceans, along with fellow researcher Mike Kemp of Washington, D.C., say millions of pounds of bombs are scattered over the Gulf of Mexico and also off the coasts of at least 16 states, from New Jersey to Hawaii.

Bryant says the discarded bombs are hardly a secret. "This has been well known for decades by many people in marine science and oceanography," he explains.

He will give a presentation in San Juan, Puerto Rico Monday (Oct. 1) about the bombs to a group of oceanographers and marine scientists in a conference titled "International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions."

"This subject has been very well documented through the years," Bryant explains. "My first thought when I saw the news reports of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf two years ago were, 'Oh my gosh, I wonder if some of the bombs down there are to blame.'"

Military dumping of unused bombs into the Gulf and other sites started in 1946 and continued until 1970, when it was finally banned.

Millions of pounds – no one, including the military, knows how many – were sent to the ocean floor as numerous bases tried to lessen the amount of ordnance at their respective locations.

"The best guess is that at least 31 million pounds of bombs were dumped, but that could be a very conservative estimate," Bryant notes.

"And these were all kinds of bombs, from land mines to the standard military bombs, also several types of chemical weapons. Our military also dumped bombs offshore that they got from Nazi Germany right after World War II. No one seems to know where all of them are and what condition they are in today."

Photos show that some of the chemical weapons canisters, such as those that carried mustard gas, appear to be leaking materials and are damaged.

"Is there an environmental risk? We don't know, and that in itself is reason to worry," explains Bryant. "We just don't know much at all about these bombs, and it's been 40 to 60 years that they've been down there."

With the ship traffic needed to support the 4,000 energy rigs, not to mention commercial fishing, cruise lines and other activities, the Gulf can be a sort of marine interstate highway system of its own. There are an estimated 30,000 workers on the oil and gas rigs at any given moment.

The bombs are no stranger to Bryant and Slowey, who have come across them numerous times while conducting various research projects in the Gulf, and they have photographed many of them sitting on the Gulf floor like so many bowling pins, some in areas cleared for oil and gas platform installation.

"We surveyed some of them on trips to the Gulf within the past few years," he notes. "Ten are about 60 miles out and others are about 100 miles out. The next closest dump site to Texas is in Louisiana, not far from where the Mississippi River delta area is in the Gulf. Some shrimpers have recovered bombs and drums of mustard gas in their fishing nets."

Bombs used in the military in the 1940s through the 1970s ranged from 250- to 500- and even 1,000-pound explosives, some of them the size of file cabinets. The military has a term for such unused bombs: UXO, or unexploded ordnance.

"Record keeping of these dump sites seems to be sketchy and incomplete at best. Even the military people don't know where all of them are, and if they don't know, that means no one really knows," Bryant adds. He believes that some munitions were "short dumped," meaning they were discarded outside designated dumping areas.

The subject of the disposal of munitions at sea has been discussed at several offshore technology conferences in recent years, and it was a topic at an international conference several years ago in Poland, Bryant says.

"The bottom line is that these bombs are a threat today and no one knows how to deal with the situation," Bryant says. "If chemical agents are leaking from some of them, that's a real problem. If many of them are still capable of exploding, that's another big problem.

"There is a real need to research the locations of these bombs and to determine if any are leaking materials that could be harmful to marine life and humans," Bryant says.

Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of UnderwaterTimes.com, its staff or its advertisers.

Reader Comments

16 people have commented so far. cloud add your comment

I want to know how in the world our government and its military could have thought dumping harmful weapons (of any magnitude) into our earths waters could have been a good idea. Why would anyone surround their home with bombs in an effort to forget about them? To think of how much money was taxed and taken from the peoples labor to produce those weapons is more upsetting. Placing harmful foreign chemicals into natural ecosystems will always have an impact, especially with that magnitude. Perhaps we haven't seen the effects yet, but I'm sure we will. When we allow a government to exist that does not favor the people who generated it, or the world we live in, the people get to take that power back and generate a new system. Not one that dominates or controls, but a loving system of understanding coexistence and equality.
   comment# 1   - Horri · Destiny, U.S.A · Sep 29, 2012 @ 3:55am

Me, just like many, many others are not surpried to see these kinds of news. Besides these bombs, that can cause a very harmful affect in everything that we are familiar with, the government witholds secreat information far worst than this. It's a shame that we live in a world that dares itself to be called society when animals seems to reason far more that people.
   comment# 2   - Trouble · Puerto Rico · Sep 29, 2012 @ 1:46pm

I worked on a commercial fishing vessel in the late 1970's and early 1980's. The type of stuff we picked up was quite dangerous, 5" naval artillery shells, a depth charge, and 20 mm antiaircraft ammo still in a packing crate. The ordinance all appeared to be live. The depth charge we threw overboard and re-caught several times. The 20 mm ammo, you could shake and still hear the propellant dry rolling around in the case. There was one 5" naval artillery shell that we caught that I screwed the fuse out, and poured the wet explosive into the the water and threw the fuse after it. The shell was brought up with its casing but not attached, and is in the possession of the war memorial museum in Newport News Virginia.
   comment# 3   - Don Robinson · Newport News Va · Sep 29, 2012 @ 6:17pm

I remember when we would go to the roof of the Sands to "watch" the atomic bombs explode to the north of Las Vegas, such fun! Oh well, we know better now, but the new fear about "nukes" has now clouded the judgement of real work at Yucca Mountain. The site is already contaminated to such a degree that it isn't your first choice for a family picnic, so it really is the best site for a nuclear waste depository, but due to the misinformation, environmentalists, others for whatever special interest groups, have really shut it down! Therefore the threat of an incident involving the wastes that are lying around the country in "swimming pools" at the various nuclear power plants are just ticking time "bombs" of their own! We can't do much about the munitions 60 to 100 miles out in the oceans but we can and must do something about the waste stored at the power plants in every bodies backyards! Sorry to be such a party pooper, but every party needs one so I guess it's me for the day Thank you
   comment# 4   - Michael Wilson · Henderson NV. · Sep 29, 2012 @ 7:18pm

What about the nucular bomb that was dropped off the coast of Georga, in the 1970's,, Then our military could never find that on either??
   comment# 5   - Knapper · Salt Lake City Utah u.s.a. · Sep 29, 2012 @ 9:21pm

In the late 1980's I remember seeing a documentary on PBS about the aging stockpiles of munitions in the US and the projected cost of proper disposal, tens of billions of dollars, that wasn't in the defense budget. One general interviewed in the program stated that in previous decades, the cheapest way to deal with aging munitions was ocean dumping or burying them at oversees bases. With the spread of global environmental enlightenment, he stated that the only option left was to start a war. Get rid of the old (good for the government) and make room for the new (good for defense contractors and the economy). At the time, I thought of Nobel and how few people realize that the man behind the prize and its money was a billionaire war-profiteer. Then the first Gulf War started soon thereafter in 1991. Always "follow the money" and "beware of the military-industrial complex" are two of my favorite explanatory quotes regarding US politics.
   comment# 6   - J · Houston · Sep 29, 2012 @ 9:52pm

Oil companies will need to check for bombs before they start drilling. Do the bombs remain stationary or do they move? We need more information about the chemical weapons. Were they created in small quantities to test gas masks or in large quantities to wage chemical war? Perhaps they were produced in large quantities just to create large profits for chemical companies like DOW. There is no excuse for chemical warfare.
   comment# 7   - Rick · Los Angeles, USA · Sep 30, 2012 @ 12:14am

In northern California we still see barges of waste (everything from garbage to who knows what) heading out the Golden Gate to be dumped out by the Farallon Islands, which we can see from the city on a clear day, and just 25 miles away. I believe it was Henry J. Kaiser who said it well with "Problems are only opportunities in work clothes".
   comment# 8   - phil dedrdevanis · san francisco, USA · Sep 30, 2012 @ 8:48am

How could so many smart people be so stupid??
   comment# 9   - ronald · fresno,usa · Sep 30, 2012 @ 8:21pm

J in Houston. Once upon a time, your scenario for ordinance was true. Today, however, much of US munitions and avionics are made off shore so there is no direct gain for manufacturers.
   comment# 10   - pablo cervates · Santa Marta Colombia · Oct 1, 2012 @ 2:05pm

Another short-sighted analysis coming back to haunt the government. It may, or may not, have cost billions of dollars to dispose of these bombs properly but it will definitely cost many trillions of dollars to find and destroy them now.
   comment# 11   - Stewart Kelly · New York, USA · Oct 1, 2012 @ 4:14pm

Not surprising. Our biggest human weakness is our tendency to avoid responsibility while seeking immediate gratification. We don't think ahead any further than the next quarterly profit & loss report or next election cycle. We don't have the patience for long term and strategic planning. Tough problems like what to do with hazardous wastes, that would be very expensive to deal with properly, are "solved" in the most expedient manner -- just dump it in somebody else's back yard; out of sight, out of mind: problem solved. This mindset will kill us all, eventually.
   comment# 12   - Bill · Williamsburg VA · Oct 1, 2012 @ 5:53pm

do you remember when they were testing the hydrogenbomb in the south pacific and they removed those people from those islands from their homes and they still cant return to those islands to this day 60yrs later what a heartless goverment we have?
   comment# 13   - leonard derr · saint peters USA · Oct 1, 2012 @ 7:36pm

@Horri You don't want a government, you want a Mommy. All governments exist on the basis of producing wealth.
   comment# 14   - Warchela · La Quinta, Ca · Oct 2, 2012 @ 12:36am

What about Fukushima dumping tons of radioactive waste into the sea.
   comment# 15   - c houston · usa · Oct 3, 2012 @ 5:53am

Not just any mommy, but a system that respects Mother Nature and everything generated from it. Anyone ever wonder why animals will never create money or start wars? They follow the nature of their instincts, instead of denying their sixth sense; they completely rely on Mother Nature's intuition. This provides an understanding of working together towards common goals for each species. The natures of our psyche, and imagination of self, divide man from animal. The collective minds of past and present humans generate government, church, money, society, technology, and the illusion of masters. What is missing is symbiosis of past and present with future. The present human must acknowledge and improve upon past in order to ensure a favorable future. This is how we handle corrupt situations and systems and keep them from hurting our future in any way. If we truly are the imagination of ourselves, I suggest we stop imagining the world as "hopeless" and start to picture "perfect". One mind at a time changes them all together.
   comment# 16   - Horri · Destiny, U.S.A · Oct 15, 2012 @ 12:35pm
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