A bitter legacy for generations to come
Although hazardous waste is produced by practically all areas of society, some of the worst waste produced, with a legacy of the poorest controls, comes from the military-industrial complex.
This is largely due to the intentionally dangerous properties of the materials involved plus the cloak of secrecy surrounding ‘national security’ that allowed virtually no significant overseeing of waste and disposal procedures until very recently. Some of the consequences resulting from both a basic lack of understanding and an appallingly cavalier attitude to safe practices will not only affect ourselves but will leave a bitter legacy for generations to come.
The phenomenon of hazardous military waste is a product of the last century. Prior to the First World War most of the waste generated by world’s militaries tended to be no different from general waste produced at the time. Apart from ‘refuse’ such as food waste, packaging, etc most other items would have been recycled or reused as was common throughout society at the time. The only specific surplus or time expired items were ammunition, explosives and shells which were either consumed in military exercises, etc or returned to depots for reclamation, removal/reuse of valuable explosives and recycling or reforging of the valuable metallic scrap.
Hazardous munitions in quantities never before considered
This situation was to change irrevocably due to the First and Second World Wars. The consumption of explosives and ammunition was unprecedented and totally unexpected. War economies developed to produce hazardous munitions in quantities never before considered and continued to expand right up to the end of both conflicts. The cessation of hostilities left vast quantities of surplus munitions that overnight changed from being a valuable strategic resource to a huge liability. The legacy of these enormous quantities of munitions requiring disposal meant that immediate practical solutions for disposal needed to be formulated. They had to take several factors into account:
- The direct safety of the public
- The safety of personnel carrying out disposal tasks
- The associated costs and risks of continued or lengthy storage
- The methods of disposal available and possible at the time
At the end of World War One, large quantities of surplus munitions remained, including chemical warfare agents. At the time these could not safely be broken down, stored, or disposed of on land, so sea disposal was seen as the only option. Unfortunately, no formal records identifying quantities or locations were kept.
At the end of World War Two munitions that were surplus to military needs, or were unserviceable could be disposed of by a number of methods. Munitions could be transferred to the appropriate factory for ‘breaking down’ and recycling if this could be done safely and economically. Alternatively, they could be detonated or burnt on land (provided this could be done safely) or they could be disposed of by sea dumping where the former two methods were considered unsuitable.
Even at that time, it was agreed that sea dumping should be considered as a last resort. However the magnitude of the problem can be gauged from the fact that at the end of the Second World War, there were some 2,000,000 tons of army ammunition in the UK alone. There was a need to reduce this tonnage quickly and safely to the amount required for future service use. The initial check of army stocks identified some 1,200,000 tons as surplus. The RAF was faced with a similar problem, with stocks of bombs in the UK totalling some 500,000 tons, including not only explosives but chemical warfare agents. In addition, a large surplus of naval and captured enemy munitions needed disposal, but no detailed records of the amounts involved have survived.
Dumping at sea
It very soon became clear that sea-dumping was the safest, most efficient and in many cases the only practicable method of disposal. The decision in favour of sea-dumping was approved by the government, while internationally, sea disposal was also adopted by most nations at this time as the accepted means of disposing of munitions and other surplus materials. The primary site identified for UK munitions dumping was Beauforts Dyke, a sea trench 50 km long, 3.5 km wide and 200-300 metres deep between Scotland and Northern Ireland. There are no surviving records which refer to dumping of munitions prior to 1945, however, since records for dumping explosives and chemical weapons left over from World War One are practically non existent there is no real way of knowing whether the Dyke was ‘clean’ prior to 1945.
Cairnryan military port became the centre for ammunition sea-dumping activities. It was particularly suitable because not only could shipping use berths away from commercial traffic, it was also sited just a few hours sailing from the dump zone. As a military base it was considered very secure, which has added to the culture of secrecy surrounding its operations over the years.
Originally surplus ammunition was transported to the dump sites and discharged over the side of adapted amphibious landing craft, but the pace of disposal was so great that soon alternative methods of disposal were needed. One expedient was the loading of war surplus shipping with waste ammunition, sailing them out to the dyke and scuttling them. Amongst the items disposed of in this way were vast quantities of chemical weapons, particularly mustard gas. Unlike in World War One, such weapons were not used in World War Two, although production continued throughout the war. Most of the weapons were designed for aircraft use and were light cased weapons containing large volumes of vesicant material. Unfortunately the mustard gas rapidly corroded the gas bombs and after six months they had a nasty tendency to eat through the casings, meaning that these weapons were disposed of with indecent haste.
The secrecy and disinformation surrounding chemical weapons at the time, similar to that which encompassed atomic weapons a few years later, was such that those in authority in the government responsible for disposal policy had very little idea of the technical issues involved. There was nothing comparable to a modern ‘risk assessment’ to provide a basis for judgement as to whether the dumping policy was justified.
Few people bothered to consider the long term implications of their actions, and as the sea was considered capable of hiding and ultimately degrading such hazardous waste to inert by-products, in all honesty they probably could see little wrong in their actions. Indeed at the time, Parliament, ultimately the body responsible for overseeing such issues had an attitude that today we would regard as horrific.
Rather than questioning the whole basis of such a dumping policy, a study of Parliamentary discussions from May 1945 until the 1950s revealed numerous questions concerned with dumping surplus ammunition, but these relate almost exclusively to requests for speedier disposal of stocks. In response to a question asking for reassurance that the dumpings posed no threat to shipping or to persons on the beaches of Scotland, a minister simply replied that steps were taken to ensure that all items sank within three seconds of entry into the water to provide the maximum precaution against the subsequent movement of ammunition due to tidal currents and the possibility of any packages being thrown up on the beaches.
No further questions regarding safety were considered at the time. The perception at the time was the ocean was vast – it would absorb it.
The appalling standard of information governance at the time has resulted in a dangerous lack of understanding of the problem in the Dyke. There are no longer specific details of every inventory or occasion on which sea dumping took place as many records have been destroyed. Once the immediate administrative need for such records had passed, they were destroyed in accordance with standard practice. The only detailed records which have survived relate to dumping activities which took place in the late wartime and immediate post-war period up to the autumn of 1946.
Based on the scanty information still available, the official presumption is that most of the weapons are in deep water and are unlikely to jeopardize commercial operations such as fishing or dredging. However, this is almost certainly not the case. The surviving records offer no guarantee as to their location. Chemical weapons were dumped long before electronic navigation systems were invented. The precise dumping locations are based on the words of ship captains, who surely wanted to ditch their cargo quickly and were likely to cut corners.
Cairnryan closed in 1960 and although sea-dumping in Beauforts Dyke continued for some years to come, the quantities of munitions disposed per annum were far smaller than those of the major post-war dumping programme. By the beginning of the 1970s the annual dumping of munitions had shrunk to less than 10,000 tons per year.
Altogether, well over a million tons of weapons were jettisoned there, including those known to have been dumped short of the Dyke in shallow coastal waters, most of the weapons weren’t designed for immersion in water, and since the mid 1960s reports were received with increasing frequency from shipping on passage in the vicinity of Beauforts Dyke stating that underwater explosions had been heard.
Particular hazards are incendiary bombs containing phosphorus that occasionally drift to the shore. Sometimes hundreds upon hundreds wash up in a matter of days as bulk packing cases decay. Once out of the water, body heat is sufficient to ignite them, or even the heat of the summer sun can cause them to explode into flame.
Such concerns now had an influence on dumping policy and this was reflected in attempts to minimise the amount of dumping at sea. In 1972 agreements were reached in two international conventions to control the dumping of materials at sea. Both the global convention covering marine pollution prevention (Dumping of Wastes at Sea – the London Convention) and the regional convention for the North East Atlantic (the Convention for the prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping from Ships and Aircraft – the Oslo Convention) required the cessation of certain dumping operations and the curtailment of others. The new guidelines enshrined the policy that sea-dumping was the last rather than the first resort.
It should be restricted to conventional ammunition and to ammunition, moreover, whose disposal on land or by other means was specifically uneconomic, impracticable or undesirable either on grounds of public safety or because land disposal might itself give rise to further pollution. The adoption of these Conventions signalled the end for sea dumping of munitions on the UK continental shelf. Dumping ceased at Beauforts Dyke in 1973, with the exception of an emergency dump of a small quantity of anti aircraft ammunition in 1976. By then, the sole approved UK munitions dump site was a small area some 400 miles west of Lands End, well beyond the edge of the continental shelf in water over 2,500 metres deep.
The policy of ‘deep dumping’, expected to move such remaining activities even further ‘out of view’, set a rather grisly precedent in some of the most horrific environmental acts of the time. Operation Sandcastle was an exercise conducted in 1955-56 to dispose of nerve gas at sea. The military possessed almost 71,000 250 kg bombs filled with Tabun, a lethal nerve agent. These had been seized from German ammunition dumps in the final months of the World War II.
Operation Sandcastle was divided into two sections, a sea voyage to Cairnryan and then a transfer to suitable hulks there for later sinking north-west of Ireland beyond the continental shelf. Even in the 1950s, it seemed a good idea to get rid of the lethal bombs as far away and as deep as possible. In all, three hulks were scuttled containing all the Tabun bombs plus 330 tons of arsenic and an unspecified small amount of even more deadly VX nerve gas and weaponised anthrax.
The British military were not the only guilty parties however. The Americans, with their much larger and active chemical weapons programme produced an enormous volume of chemical weapons and armaments, including one type of nerve gas rocket with a propellant so unstable that a good kick was all that would be required to cause it to explode, if it didn’t auto ignite all by itself. In a move laced with dark humour, probably not considered so funny now, the American programme of nerve gas disposal in the 1960s consisted of ship scuttlings under Operation CHASE – Cut Holes And Sink ’Em.
The rockets were encased in concrete and two hulks full of them were scuttled a few miles off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey. The scuttled ships still remain a potential danger. Although encased in concrete, it is unknown how quickly concrete breaks down from water pressure at such depths and what may be released when they do so. A third such ship poses no such potential danger anymore – it blew up on its way to the ocean floor in August 1968, containing conventional high explosive weapons and 3,500 one ton containers of mustard gas along with the rockets.
It was on its way to the bottom when a chain- reaction explosion went off, presumably caused by water pressure on one of the weapons that set off the rest.
In September 1992, the UK signed the convention for the protection of the marine environment of the North East Atlantic (the OSPAR Convention). This Convention prohibits the disposal of all substances at sea with only minor exemptions, for example dredged material from ports and harbours. The MOD ceased all sea dumping of conventional ammunition and explosive stocks in line with the requirements of the OSPAR Convention, and continues to honour its obligations in this regard.
Over the years environmental tests have been conducted around the former weapons dumping sites and have found no evidence the weapons had leaked. It has been tacitly assumed the pressure on the weapons as they sank to the bottom crushed the shells and made them squirt their deadly contents onto the seabed, where they long ago broke down into their non-lethal chemical components. That might be wishful thinking, however, as some believe that shells filled with chemical weapons are more likely to leak slowly over time than to be crushed while sinking.
The only comprehensive studies undertaken to date concern four ships full of captured German chemical weapons scuttled by the US and British militaries in 1946 within the Skagerrak Strait, a narrow but deep (about 2,000 feet) body of water that separates Norway and Denmark. The Norwegians found that the sunken ships remained intact; some of the shells had leaked while others were slowly corroding. That reveals a problem that could last hundreds of years. Soil sediment showed high levels of arsenic, a component of some of the chemical weapons.
The risk of catastrophic release are remote in most cases, but continual monitoring will be required for a very long time to come to ensure that the situations in the Skagerrak, Beauforts Dyke and elsewhere do not deteriorate to a dangerous extent in the future. The best long term solution will be to thoroughly clear and decontaminate all sea dumped ammunition and dispose of it properly once it is safely on land, although in many cases the technology to do this safely does not yet exist. Until then, the deadly legacy of hazardous waste ammunition will continue to haunt us for generations to come.
Published: 10th Jan 2007 in AWE International