A Westinghouse mine-hunting device used in the Persian Gulf war has located missing containers of arsenic trioxide off the coast of New Jersey, the company claimed yesterday.
But the Coast Guard stopped short of confirming that the containers, discovered 30 miles east of Cape May, held the poisonous cargo.
More than 440 drums of the poison, held inside four containers, fell over the side of a Panamanian ship, the Santa Clara I, when it was caught by the northeaster that struck the mid-Atlantic region on Jan. 4-5. The vessel was en route to Baltimore.
"We're nearly 100 percent certain we've found them," said Walter L. Dunkle, general manager of the Westinghouse Oceanic Division, which provided workers for the search. "There's 21 containers and they are the right size, the right shape and they are shiny, an indication they haven't been down there very long.
"One hundred percent sure," he added, "is when you have the serial numbers" on the shipping containers.
In all, 21 cargo containers were washed overboard. The four containers holding the arsenic could release enough poison to kill marine life for miles around the accident site if they rupture, environmentalists have said.
Mr. Dunkle claimed that more than a dozen of the containers were spotted in a pile on the ocean floor and that there were drums scattered about, indicating that some of the shipping boxes ruptured when they sank in the 120-foot-deep water.
"If Westinghouse is saying they have located the shipping containers, that's incorrect," said Lt. John Flynn, a spokesman for the Coast Guard's Marine Safety office in Philadelphia that is serving as the headquarters for the search operations.
"What they have located is a number of sonar 'contacts,' similar in size and shape of the containers," Lieutenant Flynn said. "They could be anything -- an anchor on the bottom or a ship wreck."
Lieutenant Flynn said the Coast Guard was "cautiously optimistic" that the missing containers have been found, but they were waiting for a remote operated vessel (ROV) equipped with a television camera to be lowered into the ocean for a closer look.
An Environmental Protection Agency ship was expected at the site last night and was scheduled to launch the ROV about midnight.
Although arsenic trioxide is a deadly poison -- two pinches of the white powder could kill a 150-pound person -- those familiar with the underwater terrain off Cape May said last night that they didn't believe the 441 drums posed much danger.
The 28-inch-high drums could be easily reclaimed, they predicted, if they are found.
Gerard Mangone, a professor at the University of Delaware's Graduate College of Marine Studies in Newark, said that the ocean bottom in the area is soft, so the containers probably had a comparatively gentle landing.
In addition, since the barrels are about 30 miles from the coast, there is little chance that a significant amount of leaked arsenic could travel to the shoreline, Mr. Mangone said.
"Nobody likes to think about this, but there are nuclear submarines sunk out there" and there are no indications that those vessels are leaking or harming the ocean, he said.
The area of the discovery has been a rich flounder and scallop field, according to John Perriello, an fisherman in Cape May.
Though the big square containers might corrode in the salt water break up under the pressure, Mr. Mangone said he believed the drums inside the containers could withstand the elements. and could easily and safely be brought to the surface.
Lieutenant Flynn said the Coast Guard's biggest concern is that some fishing vessel would pull up one of the drums with its net. He said the drums are labeled "poison" and warned against touching them or coming into contact with them.
He said his office has sent out a message on the marine radio channel warning boaters to report any sighting to the Coast Guard immediately.
The Westinghouse equipment used in the search is the mine-hunting sonar that was used in the Persian Gulf war to clear shipping lanes.
Technically called the AN/AQS-14, the units look something like a cross between a torpedo and a cruise missile. A sonar is lowered into the water from a helicopter and sends out signals that bounce off objects beneath the surface.
Brion Burk, manager of the AQS-14 program, explained that the device picks up the signals that bounce back and produces an electronic picture of what it "sees." The image is transmitted to television-like screens aboard the helicopter.