November 16, 2005:
For twelve years, until 1964, the
U.S. Navy got rid of large quantities of aging munitions (much of it of World
War II vintage) by just having ships dump it overboard. This was often done in
coastal waters. The long New Jersey coastline was a favorite dumping ground.
Over the past few years, some of this stuff, often still packing an explosive
punch, has been washing up on beaches along the east coast of the United
States. After the dumping was stopped, the navy switched to disposing of the stuff
by packing it onto surplus ships, towing them out to sea, and then blowing them
up. While this destroyed most of the shells and bombs, there were plenty that
did not go off (especially shells, which are built sturdy so they can survive
being fired out of a cannon). Someone finally got hip to that, and the "blow it
up" policy was stopped in 1970. After that, the navy had to resort to the more
expensive of disassembling the munitions and recycling the components. But in
the two decades before 1970, thousands of tons of stuff found its way to the
ocean floor in shallow coastal waters.
Now the Department of Defense is trying to find out where all the pre-1970
stuff was "disposed" of. We are now entering the stormy side of 30 years cycles
of calm and stormy weather. Big storms mean big movements on the ocean floor
off the coast. That means more ancient, but still sensitive and dangerous,
munitions washing up, to the Pentagon's embarrassment. So something is being
done. Meanwhile, be careful what you pick up on the beach.