Dumping Ordnance In Our Ocean

Larry Price
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Wednesday - March 01, 2006
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One of the first real jobs I had in my life was as part of a U.S. Army explosive ordnance disposal team. I didn’t receive any formal training for the job beyond basic training.

A group of us, about 20 enlisted men, were sent to the Big Island to clear a stretch of land from the Kona Highway to the Puako beachfront. Unfortunately, the area had been used for training by the military, which had evidently left a lot of unexploded projectiles laying around. A few cowboys had stumbled on some of the unexploded mortar shells and received serious injuries.

The team was set right outside of Kamuela across the street from a horse-racing track behind a restaurant. About two weeks after the “select” group arrived and received intensive training, we mapped out a huge parcel of land of mostly lava rock, and set out on the task of finding and destroying as many of the unexploded projectiles as we could find.

While the U.S. Army engineers were working on land, the U.S. Navy was anchored off Kawaihae Harbor diving for unexploded projectiles. In the beginning, they were more successful than the Army.

We could hear the explosions going off all day.

There are probably a few residents of Kamuela who remember the Army’s presence in the early 1950s. Every now and then, someone would find a 500-pound projectile that had to be detonated. When that occurred, all the residents of the nearby towns had to be notified by date, time and nature of the anticipated explosion. In most cases, that was a lot of trauma for local residents from Kona to Honokaa. Though the worst damage was broken windows, it was the power of the bombs that was scary.

So, it is only natural that when I heard about all the munitions the U.S. Army had dumped off the Waianae Coast, I was in disbelief. To make matters worse, they still have not determined the location of most of the more than 8,000 tons of chemical munitions dumped off Oahu at the end of World War II.

What is really interesting is the contention that if their containers failed, most of the chemicals would break down into nontoxic compounds.

I thought I read somewhere that there isn’t anything that comes from nowhere, or something that can return to nothing. After all, we are talking about science at work here.

The U.S. Army is going to take a couple of these unexploded projectiles all the way to Maryland. Once there, they will conduct studies on the projectiles to see what effect saltwater would have if the shell was broken open, how toxic the contents would be and for how long. Remember that these projectiles are over 50 years old.

It sounds like a sick joke, in a way. If it explodes or breaks open, don’t worry, it won’t be toxic. Says who? They haven’t even completed the experiments.

My personal opinion is that these shells were made to kill people. They should be treated with the utmost care and their location should be kept secret so that curious beachgoers don’t go looking for them.

It took our band of bomb hunters one year to clear the terrain between Kamuela and Pohakuloa. The more ordnance we uncovered, the more nervous I got about unexploded shells laying around, abandoned by their keepers.

It was interesting to hear the U.S. Army admit that it was its policy from World War I until the late 1960s that ocean dumping was the way to dispose of munitions and chemicals. Open-pit burning and land burials were also used.

Evidently what I witnessed on the Big Island was massive land burials of munitions. The practice was banned by Congress in 1972, as was ocean dumping.

I’m sure the U.S. Army will make a concerted effort to find the locations of the ocean dumping. It will do this by searching the archives and ship logs involved in the disposal operation about just what was thrown overboard.

One can only hope for the best; however, can you imagine how many unexploded projectiles are resting on the bottoms of oceans around the world?

Maybe when the scientists finish their research, they will conclude that the ocean is no place to dump anything that wasn’t meant to be there to begin with.

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