Tossed off the side of a storm-rocked Panamanian ship, hundreds of drums of arsenic are believed to be resting on the Atlantic Ocean bottom near the mouth of Delaware Bay, loaded with enough poison to kill marine life for miles around.
A U.S. Navy mine detector unit will launch a search with sonar for 432 drums of arsenic trioxide lost Saturday between New York and Cape Henlopen, Del., in hopes of retrieving them intact. The search could begin as early as tomorrow.
After three days of searching for floating containers this week, Coast Guard planes have found no drums or spotted any major fish kills, according to Coast Guard officials.
The extent of environmental damage will depend on whether the steel drums, which dropped 40 feet off the side of the container ship into high seas, are damaged and leaking.
If they have broken up and scattered, "you will have mini-death areas" around each drum, said Dr. James Sanders, curator of the Maryland-based Benedict Estuarine Research Laboratory of the Academy of Natural Sciences.
And according to rough calculations, Dr. Sanders said, if all the drums broke up in one area, a lethal dose of the chemical would extend for 15 square miles in 100 feet of water. In addition, he said, it would take hundreds of miles of ocean to dilute it to a level that would equal the natural levels in the ocean.
"That is the size of the environmental problem you could have, but I think the end results will not be that bad," he said. The arsenic probably will not be a threat to human health because marine life it touches would likely die quickly before it could be consumed and reach the food chain, he said.
"In terms of marine life, the mid-Atlantic has very productive fisheries. It is a very rich area," said Beth Millemann, executive director of the Coast Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believes that the environmental effects are likely to be minimal if the arsenic is quickly diluted dozens of miles off the coast of Delaware. But in the unlikely chance the drums of arsenic float ashore, "then the impacts would have the potential to be severe," NOAA officials said in a statement released yesterday.
If the drums are "offshore, the concern is less than in the mouth of the estuaries" such as Delaware Bay, said William Boicourt, a physical oceanographer at the University of Maryland laboratory at Horn Point on the Eastern Shore. Because ocean water flows along the bottom, arsenic at the mouth of the bay could be carried in from as far as 30 miles off the coast.
Arsenic trioxide, a byproduct of gold and copper mining, was being shipped from New York to Panama, apparently destined to be used in manufacturing pesticides.
The chemical is so powerful that two pinches of it could kill a 150-pound person.
The Santa Clara I, a 492-foot vessel of Panamanian registry, left New York on Jan. 3 and encountered 65-knot winds and rough seas as it approached Cape Henlopen, a tip of land that juts into Delaware Bay.
It was then that the ship's master, Juan M. Alvarez, noticed that 21 containers had fallen off the side, apparently when a metal pole holding the containers together bent as the ship rocked in the wind and 20-foot waves. Four of the containers contained the arsenic but the rest were empty or held wood, according to Coast Guard officials.
One container of wood was found partially submerged Tuesday afternoon 35 miles off the coast of Chincoteague, Va.
Shipping experts and Coast Guard officials believe the arsenic containers, which are much heavier, probably sank.
Shipping containers are steel boxes the size of truck trailers, built tough enough to survive the rigors of moving valuable cargo on the decks of ships, on rail cars or on trucks. While the containers are waterproof, they are not designed to float because of the hazard they could pose to other ships.
"I can't imagine it would drift very far. My guess is it would go down fairly quickly," said Richard W. Owen, a member of the Association of Maryland Pilots, who guides cargo ships in and out of the port of Baltimore.