WWII bombs wash ashore, sur­prise Outer Banks

Sci­en­tists spec­u­late about con­di­tions caus­ing churn at Cape Hat­teras

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY THOMAS GIBBONS-NEFF thomas.gib­bon­sneff@wash­post.com

The sud­den ap­pear­ance of two large, rusty and bar­na­cle-en­crusted World War II-era mu­ni­tions on the beaches of Cape Hat­teras, N.C., this sum­mer has puz­zled the area’s park rangers and his­to­ri­ans.

“We haven’t had these in the past,” said Boone Vandzura, the chief ranger of Cape Hat­teras Na­tional Seashore, a 70-mile stretch of sand and surf that spans from Bodie Is­land to the tiny ham­let of Ocra­coke. Vandzura said he thought it had been more than a decade since an un­ex­ploded mu­ni­tion ap­peared at Hat­teras.

But within a week this month, Vandzura re­ceived re­ports of two ag­ing pieces of ord­nance. The first — iden­ti­fied by the Navy as a World War II-era bomb — was called in on July 14, while the sec­ond, a M38A prac­tice bomb, also from World War II, was found 12 miles south of the first find on July 18. In both in­stances, a Navy bomb dis­posal team drove down from Nor­folk and got rid of the mu­ni­tions.

The two bombs at Hat­teras make up the en­tirety of the team’s calls for un­ex­ploded mu­ni­tions this year, said Lt. Kristi Fon­tenot, a spokes­woman for the Ex­plo­sive Ord­nance Dis­posal Mo­bile Unit 2. The de­tach­ment cov­ers all of North Carolina and Vir­ginia and av­er­ages about five calls a year, she said.

Joseph Sch­warzer, di­rec­tor of the North Carolina Mar­itime Mu­seum at Cape Hat­teras, said he couldn’t re­call mu­ni­tions ap­pear­ing on shore since he started his ten­ure in 1995, let alone two within a week, nor could Dan Couch, a life­long res­i­dent of Hat­teras and his­to­rian who could re­mem­ber only a lo­cal named Na­cie Peele who had an un­ex­ploded shell on his porch and sto­ries of shrimpers bring­ing up ord­nance in their nets.

“It’s not sur­pris­ing, though,” Sch­warzer said. Cape Hat­teras, a piece of land that juts out into an im­por­tant ship­ping lane, has been wit­ness to many his­tor­i­cal events that have lit­tered the seabed with tens of thou­sands of pounds of weapons, in­clud­ing Civil War can­non­balls, Ger­man tor­pe­does and prac­tice bombs left over from World War II.

“If any­thing is sur­pris­ing, it’s that they only found two,” Sch­warzer said. The ques­tion, he said, is what “nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non” brought them to the shore.

Peter Traykovski, a sci­en­tist at the Woods Hole Oceano­graphic In­sti­tute in Woods Hole, Mass., said that a team of re­searchers work­ing with the U.S. Strate­gic En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Pro­gram is try­ing to fig­ure that out.

“It’s about the eco­nom­ics of a re­sponse,” he said. “If we find that they are highly mo­bile, then a larger, more ex­pen­sive cleanup ef­fort is re­quired, and if the mu­ni­tions are spread­ing ev­ery­where, it be­comes a much big­ger prob­lem.”

The coastal ar­eas of the United States, in­clud­ing Hawaii and Alaska, are home to tens of mil­lions of pounds of dumped mu­ni­tions, said Niall Slowey, a pro­fes­sor at Texas A&M Univer­sity who has spent more than a decade re­search­ing the topic. That num­ber in­cludes 30,000 tons of chem­i­cal com­pounds such as mus­tard agents that were dumped af­ter the world wars.

Al­though the num­ber seems huge, it rep­re­sents only what was recorded, Slowey said. He added that an un­known amount of ord­nance was dis­posed of or dropped dur­ing train­ing and wartime and never doc­u­mented. That, plus the about 5,000 for­mer mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions in the United States, 400 of which could have po­ten­tially con­tam­i­nated ar­eas, make the scope of the prob­lem daunt­ing.

In ad­di­tion, it is un­clear what the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact will be, if any, once large quan­ti­ties of the weapons start to de­grade and break apart. Within the past two decades the Pen­tagon has started to de­vote more re­sources to the is­sue. The Army Corps of En­gi­neers has on­go­ing projects as part of the “mil­i­tary mu­ni­tions re­sponse pro­gram,” which spans from Martha’s Vine­yard to Pearl Har­bor.

Traykovski and his col­leagues’ five-year study has used dummy mu­ni­tions, acous­tic track­ers and spe­cial buoys to un­der­stand the type of sea con­di­tions that make the old shells travel. Cape Hat­teras, Traykovski said, with its shal­low sand shoals and of­ten-vi­o­lent waves, could be a place where big­ger mu­ni­tions are on the move.

“If old mu­ni­tions are go­ing to show up any­where, they are go­ing to show up there,” Traykovski said, re­fer­ring to the newly formed Shelly Is­land off Cape Hat­teras where one of the mu­ni­tions was found ear­lier this month, “as it has the per­fect catcher’s mitt geom­e­try, to catch ob­jects mi­grat­ing from both the north and west.”

Stan­ley Riggs, a re­search pro­fes­sor at East Carolina Univer­sity and a coastal and ma­rine ge­ol­o­gist, said North Carolina’s Outer Banks re­gion is one of the most dy­namic coast­lines in the world, with an abun­dance of de­bris on the seafloor that mi­grates with the cur­rents and weather.

“It used to be our trash bin,” Riggs said. “And the Cape Hat­teras area is one of the high­est en­ergy and most ac­tive shore­lines along the At­lantic mar­gin with a lot of past mar­itime war ac­tiv­ity.”

Shells from the 1861 bom­bard­ment of Hat­teras In­let still come to the sur­face when boats dredge the ferry chan­nel there, Sch­warzer said. Dur­ing World War II, more than 60 mer­chant ships were sunk by Ger­man sub­marines off Hat­teras in the first six months of 1942, lit­ter­ing the bot­tom with sup­plies, depth charges and Amer­i­can bombs tar­get­ing en­emy ships. The Outer Banks and its coastal wa­ters were also once home to World War II aerial tar­get ranges that are still lit­tered with bombs.

“It’s a ge­o­log­i­cal process here. Things get un­cov­ered; some­times it’s fos­sils, some­times it’s parts of ship­wrecks and some­times it’s mu­ni­tions,” Sch­warzer said.

Al­though many of the rusted ar­ti­facts of war ap­pear sim­i­lar to other ocean de­bris, they can be lethal — their ex­plo­sive cores and chem­i­cals en­cased in lay­ers of steel. In 1965, a scal­lop trawler ac­ci­den­tally brought a live tor­pedo aboard off Hat­teras, and when the crew at­tempted to free it, the un­der­wa­ter weapon ex­ploded, killing all eight aboard. In 2004, a clam-dredg­ing com­pany in New Jersey un­earthed an ar­tillery shell filled with mus­tard agent in a semisolid, tar-like form. Three bomb-dis­posal tech­ni­cians were in­jured try­ing to de­stroy the shell.

Of­fi­cials warn that if you en­counter some­thing you think might be an un­ex­ploded shell, you should not touch it. In­stead, back away care­fully and call 911 to re­port it.

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