WWI shell may go to APG

Army wants to study artillery containing mustard agent

December 25, 2005|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

Eight months after finally disposing of the last of its once-vast stockpile of deadly mustard agent at Aberdeen Proving Ground, the Army wants to bring to the base an artillery shell containing the blistering agent that was dumped in the ocean after World War I.

Officials said the 10-pound, barnacle-encrusted ordnance, dredged up by a company collecting clams 20 miles off the coast of New Jersey, presents an opportunity to study the effects of deep-sea dumping on chemical weapons.

"It's been in the ocean - we don't know how long - so we want to look at the condition of the item from both inside and outside," said Charles Heyman, a project manager for Edgewood's Non-Stockpile Chemical Material Project.

Until the practice was outlawed in 1972, the military often disposed of surplus weapons in the ocean, on the theory that it was vast enough to accommodate them and neutralize any dangerous chemicals.

"We were doing what we thought was the best way to dispose of weapons," Dave Foster, an Army spokesman, said of the military's now-banned open water disposal. "It's been 60 years for a lot of this stuff, and we don't know what the effects are going to be yet."

The 75-millimeter shell the Army wants to bring to APG is one of two with traces of mustard agent that were brought up from the ocean floor in the past two years. Both were recovered by Sea Watch International Ltd., a company based in Milford, Del., that dredges clams, selling the meat for food and crushing the shells for use as an inexpensive driveway paving material.

But the finds - which were in shallow waters - have prompted concerns over the Army's record of sea disposal, as well as how to conduct recovery operations. Hundreds of unexploded munitions end up in clamshell-fill driveways after passing through a screening process at a processing plant.

One of the shells left three Army technicians with burns sustained when they destroyed it in a mobile munitions assessing system.

Officials want to bring the other shell to Aberdeen because they believe a close examination could yield useful information. The barnacles, for example, could help determine where the object was dumped and how far it has traveled, filling in gaps from missing records.

But community leaders are concerned. In March, much to the relief of area residents who had fought for years to rid their community of the material, APG became the first military site to destroy its stockpile of stored mustard agent, a blistering substance best known for its lethal effects in trench warfare.

At that time, the Army said it had not decided whether to seek permission from state and federal regulators to bring in more materials for disposal. B. Daniel Riley, a former state delegate and Edgewood resident, said the community was told the base's involvement with mustard was finished.

"When we talked about getting rid of mustard gas at APG, we were assured that no other mustard would come on post," Riley said. "I'm deeply concerned. ... A lot of people say, `It's only one shell.' No - one shell leads to another, and another and another."

George Mercer, a spokesman for APG, said: "We would like to bring this specific munition in because we can learn from it.

"I understand why they would question why we're bringing in mustard when we just got rid of mustard," he said.

For years, live munitions - fired into the ocean for target practice or during combat - have washed up on beaches. In July, a 600-mile stretch of Rehoboth Beach in Delaware was shut down after a beachcomber found two live artillery shells. Hampton, Va., ordered a ban on digging and metal detectors in 2002 after three 76-millimeter shells were found buried about a foot under ground.

In the past year, more than 300 unexploded projectiles and fragments intended for deep-sea disposal have been found by the Army Corps of Engineers in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey in driveways and parking lots made from crushed clamshells. Of the ordnances found in driveways, five were in Maryland, all on the Eastern Shore.

"Are they considered dangerous? Absolutely, simply because it's unknown," Foster said.

Last year, a resident of Bridgeville, Del., discovered 32 corroded hand grenades while spreading crushed clamshells delivered to his property, according to news reports. Some of the grenades, believed to be British and French, are the size of a cell phone and look like pineapples. Other items recovered include 20-millimeter and 37-millimeter shells.

Larry Knudsen, 68, owns a Snow Hill bed-and-breakfast with a clamshell-fill driveway, which he said "turns up the occasional spent round."

"It's a piece of history," he said, chuckling.

An investigation by the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) in October found that the Army is unable to account for 64 million pounds of chemical and 400,000 chemical-filled bombs and rockets dumped into the ocean and coasts of at least 11 states and 11 countries. Records, many kept at APG, are missing or were destroyed.

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