September 28, 2012

Bombs In Gulf Of Mexico Pose Big Problems

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.”

a map of Gulf of Mexico ordnance dispoal areas

Ordnance disposal areas in the Gulf of Mexico

“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.

A crab sits on a mustard gas canister that appears to be leaking

A crab sits on a mustard gas canister that appears to be leaking

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.

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Media contact: Keith Randall, News & Information Services, at (979) 845-4644 or William Bryant at (979) 845-2680

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7 Comments to Bombs In Gulf Of Mexico Pose Big Problems

  1. UXO in Europe is probably dangerous becaused it was dropped with the intention of exploding so it had detonators. Bombs dumped n the ocean weren’t intended to explode so they probably didn’t. Is there any evidence of these bombs exploding spontaneously or when hit by shrimps nets, anchors, etc. Not mentioned, so probably not. Mustard gas may not be great, but if a crab is sitting on it, is it really a problem? Maybe a few hundred $K of studies are needed. AGW has used up my environmental worry.
    PS A bottom survey is required before rigs drill, platforms are installed or pipelines are laid, so, as noted in the article, the bottom is cleared and you don’t have to lose sleep over them. But then I could be wrong.

  2. John 71 on September 28th, 2012
  3. Teledyne brown and Versar subsidiary have experience with a related scenario (remediation of CW agents barrels in Northern japan).

  4. hk on September 30th, 2012
  5. The article talks about the dangers of the millions? of pounds of bombs spread throughout the world’s oceans, but never mentions a good figure within the last 40 to 60 years how many, if any have exploded, and if any damage was done from the ones that did explode.
    I would gather that MOST if not all were dumped in deeper waters, 500 ft or beyond, so the likelyhood of any ship coming in contact with them is nil.
    Just a slight concern is the chemicals that may leak from them, but once diluted by the millions gallons of seawater, I again can’t imagine a big impact.
    John 71 has it, spot on. Just dole out a couple hundred $K in study money so everybody “concerned” is happy.
    Also correct is that each site for seafloor activity is scanned and cleared prior to activity so again the likelyhood of contact with any of the UXO is slim to none.
    A nice story to get the uninformed concerned about something that is not that concerning.

  6. OL AG '89 on October 2nd, 2012
  7. What a waste of money.

  8. NB on October 2nd, 2012
  9. Is there any evidence of these things being pushed around by ocean currents? I know they are very heavy and there may be no need to worry about this. Also, I agree that some money needs to go to some research in this field but a few hundred $K would not be sufficient. Most offshore research vessels cost tens of thousands of dollars a day to operate. I do not know how much of this cost is necessary cost and how much is for fluff but that is the reality of it.

  10. Charles on October 4th, 2012
  11. This does seem a little over the top sounding the alarm. The real danger would come from spontaneous ignition of the weaponry but there was no mention of that happening. Of course, munitions found at shrimp trawling depths is a concern but again, how often has this happened and what were the circumstances? The MG canister pictured is at a depth of over 600 meters and that is far beyond the reach of recreational water sports or even shipping. That raises another question…What, if any, would be the conditions on the surface if a 500lb weapon detonated at that depth? There are too many questions on this subject for it to be presented in this way.

  12. AH on October 8th, 2012
  13. Very interesting article – NB has a good point; what about the ocean moving stuff around? And Mother Ocean is indeed very, VERY powerful!! So this situation shouldn’t be just forgotten, but OL AG’89 “could” be correct if funding is subjected to bureaucratic bs + “over-studying,” et al. Gotta get someone to lead a project that just wants to GET THE JOB DONE!!

  14. Martin on October 11th, 2012
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