In a long-shot bid to stop seismic testing for oil and gas in the Atlantic Ocean, coastal business leaders and elected officials are raising concerns the tests could cause toxins to leak from vast amounts of conventional munitions, chemical weapons and radioactive waste that now sits undisturbed on the ocean floor.
For decades, the U.S. military routinely dumped thousands of tons of obsolete, excess and captured munitions into U.S. coastal waters, thinking the high seas were the best place for the materials to safely decompose. The Atomic Energy Commission likewise oversaw the ocean dumping of untold thousands of drums of low-level radioactive waste from the nation's manufacturing, research, medical and military sectors.
As President Trump pushes to make more offshore waters available for oil and gas drilling, the administration wants to make it easier for companies to use seismic testing to aid in the exploration process. But coastal leaders say allowing seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean could disturb the long-forgotten hazardous refuse and release toxic contaminants into the marine environment.
“Over the last couple years, people have asked me why I have been so opposed to seismic surveys off our coast,” said Beaufort, South Carolina Mayor Billy Keyserling in a recent statement. “But when I now tell them about the radioactive waste and munition dumps, they are horrified and ask what they can do to help.”
Keyersling and others want to block the seismic testing plan, but their lobbying campaign may be coming too late to affect the Trump administration’s upcoming decision on whether to move the seismic permitting process forward. In addition, experts are divided on whether months of continuous offshore seismic testing would actually pose a risk for coastal communities.
Five companies want federal approval to shoot pressurized air blasts into the ocean every 10 to 12 seconds around-the-clock for months at a time in search of fossil fuel deposits beneath the ocean. The proposed seismic testing area would cover over 330,000 square miles of ocean from Florida to the Delaware bay.
In public comments to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, businesses and residents along the eastern seaboard strongly opposed seismic testing, fearing it could lead to offshore drilling which, they fear, could harm marine life, tourism and commercial and recreational fishing.
The public comment period ended in July 2017. But because of the large volume of comments, NOAA Fisheries hasn’t yet decided whether to issue or deny the testing companies’ request for “incidental harassment authorizations” that allow small numbers of marine mammals to be injured or disturbed in testing operations.
The delay has allowed testing opponents to mount a new attack, claiming that shock waves from the underwater air blasts could detonate or cause toxic chemicals to leak from tons of U.S. bombs, grenades, rockets and mortars that the U.S. military dumped in the Atlantic Ocean from the end of World War I until 1970.
Chemical warfare agents were also discarded in the Atlantic, including 10,000 tons of lewisite, an arsenic-laced blister agent; nearly 6,000 tons of mustard; more than 500 tons of arsenic trichloride and more than 250 tons of sarin, according to a 2009 report by the Department of Defense.
In all, 33 munitions disposal sites are scattered along the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Maine, encompassing much of the ocean area where the proposed testing would occur, the DOD reported.
Similar concerns have been raised about the air blasts causing leaks in rusting, steel drums of radioactive waste that were dumped in the Atlantic Ocean under the guidance of the old Atomic Energy Commission.
From 1946 through 1962, the U.S dumped "approximately 89,400 containers with an estimated inventory of 94,400 curies of radioactivity" in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, according to a 1980 Environmental Protection Agency report prepared for a House subcommittee.
Ninety-six percent of “all radioactivity dumped in the Atlantic" was discarded in sites off the coast of New Jersey, the report said.
One dump site located 140 miles southeast of Coast Guard Station Sandy Hook in Highlands, NJ, received 14,301 containers totaling 74,400 curies of radioactivity from 1951 to 1956 and from 1959 to 1962. Another site, 220 miles southeast of the Sandy Hook station, received 14,500 containers with 2,100 curies of radioactivity from 1957 to 1959, the EPA report said.
The containers typically stored low-level radioactive waste, like contaminated equipment, tools and clothing, which were usually encased in concrete-filled steel drums, the report said.
Even though both New Jersey dump sites are outside the area where the proposed seismic testing would occur, other Atlantic Ocean dump sites not included in the EPA report have also received radioactive waste, said seismic testing opponent Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.
In 2013, the Wall Street Journal, citing reports by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Atomic Energy Commission and the National Academy of Sciences, identified 23 such disposal sites for radioactive waste in the Atlantic Ocean, including five off the Georgia coast, four off the South Carolina coast, three off Florida’s coast and two off North Carolina’s coast.
James W. Porter, an ecology professor emeritus at the University of Georgia, said he doubts that seismic testing could detonate long-discarded explosives. But months of constant air blasts might dislodge or disturb the weapons’ rusting, deteriorating casements, Porter said.
That could send toxic contents into the ocean, endangering marine life and human life through long-term exposure. Porter said the same is true of the rusting steel drums filled with radioactive waste.
“That worries me a great deal,” said Porter, who, in 2001, found high levels of carcinogenic materials in sea life near U.S. munitions that were discarded in the waters off the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
In an e-mail letter to NOAA, Knapp has asked that new concerns about the munitions and radioactive waste be added to the chamber’s previous comments opposing seismic testing that were submitted in July 2017.
Kate Brogan, an NOAA spokesperson, said Knapp’s letter would be included in the agency’s administrative record. But the concerns he raised were “outside the scope of (the administration's) Incidental Harassment Authorization process for marine mammal take” and “did not present information relevant to the scope of our decision” on whether to issue the authorizations, Brogan said in an e-mail.
Knapp has made a similar appeal to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). If the harassment authorizations are issued, BOEM will have to conduct a separate environmental analysis before deciding whether to grant final approval for the testing permits.Knapp will meet with officials at the energy management bureau later this month to discuss his concerns, said Connie Gillette, BOEM's Chief of the Office of Public Affairs.
The energy industry, already frustrated by the slow IHA process, strongly disputes claims that seismic tests would adversely affect the discarded munitions or chemical agents.
Ken Milito, director of Upstream and Industry Operations for the American Petroleum Institute, said the concerns are bogus.
“There is absolutely no evidence that seismic testing has or would have any impact on any kind of munitions,” Milito said. “We've never seen that or heard of that. We think it’s just another fear-mongering attempt to try to create and stir doubts about our ability to do (the tests) safely," he said.
Threat in removing drums, or leaving them alone
The potential risk from weapons leaking chemical agents varies, according to a 2007 report by the Congressional Research Service. Nerve agents typically dissolve in water within a few days, while other less-soluble agents break down in water over time, the report said. But “sulfur mustard in liquid or solid form turns into an encrusted gel when released in seawater. In this form, it can persist for many years before degrading,” the report said.
The Department of Defense, in a 2016 report, said the munitions disposal sites don’t “pose an unacceptable risk to ecological, environmental, or human health or to maritime safety.” Trying to recover and remove sea-disposed munitions, however “may cause them to either break apart and release their contents or detonate. Either scenario can have an adverse effect on human health and the environment,” the report said.
The DOD recommends leaving the materials “in place unless there is an explosives emergency or serious threat to human health or the environment.”
But after decades under water, it’s unclear where all the discarded munitions and their chemical agents are located. Government records are either imprecise, missing or incomplete.
And ocean currents, storms and shifting sediment may have moved the materials along the ocean floor over many decades, said Michael Jasny, an expert on ocean noise pollution with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In July 2017, a WWII-era bomb washed ashore on Hatteras Island in North Carolina. Two months later, an unexploded naval mine washed ashore in Cape Hatteras National Seashore, forcing the National Park Service to close a portion of the beach. In both instances, military bomb disposal teams were called to remove the devices.
Not knowing the exact locations of explosives makes seismic testing even more dangerous, said retired Navy Capt. Joe Bouchard, former commanding officer of Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Va.
“If seismic testing was done right over a (munitions) dump site, there is a chance it could cause explosive ordnance to detonate,” said Bouchard, who opposes testing in the Atlantic. "Once one bomb explodes, for whatever reason, the concussion from that bomb can cause a whole bunch of others to go off.”
In a statement, BOEM spokesperson Tracey Moriarty said the agency is “not aware of any science that suggests seismic surveys have the ability to detonate unexploded ordnance.”
When oil or gas surveys “discover unexploded ordnance on the seafloor during normal operations, they report it to BOEM. We keep track of unexploded ordnance and establish exclusion zones to avoid the affected area,” Moriarty added.
Margo Edwards, a geophysicist and director of the Applied Research Laboratory at the University of Hawaii, said the possibility of seismic tests causing explosives to detonate is “highly unlikely.”
Edwards tests for possible contamination around munitions dumped in deep water off the coast of Hawaii during WWII. She said the threat of seismic air blasts causing munitions casements to breach is likewise overstated.
“We have seen munitions that have corroded to point where they’ve opened in Hawaii. But it seems like something hit them. Like physically contacted them,” Edwards said.
Unexploded munitions in the Gulf of Mexico have been discovered by oil and gas survey teams and were safely removed and disposed of, said Nikki Martin, President of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors. She said the same could be done if explosives are discovered in the Atlantic.
Denying or even extending the permit review process over the new concerns is a non-starter, she said.
“We have already spent more than enough time examining every potential impact that could ever occur offshore Atlantic from seismic surveys,” Martin said…..“And we are still waiting for authorization. So I think the time to thresh out all possible concerns has happened.”
But Knapp disagrees. In recent letters to NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Knapp said no seismic tests should be allowed “unless the federal government can demonstrate that it knows where all disposed munitions” and radioactive waste are located in the Atlantic and until tests are conducted to see what effect the air gun blasts would have on them.
“Do the research,” Knapp said. “What’s in the containers? What condition are they in? And could air blasts disrupt the integrity of the containers. That’s really all we’ve ever asked for. But we can’t take the government’s documents as gospel.”
A radioactive legacy, deep underwater
In 1976, researchers found radioactive cesium in three sediment samples taken from the largest container disposal site off the Jersey coast. "It is believed to be the result of leaching from the concrete matrix of the containers," the EPA report said.
But a 1978 study of a container taken from the same site found the "container had withstood the rigors of the deep ocean environment. The authors estimate that a minimum of 100 years in the deep ocean environment would be required before the concrete waste form would lose its integrity," the EPA report said.
A 1981 GAO report on the dumping of low-level radioactive waste in the ocean found that “concerns over the potential public health and environmental consequences posed by past ocean dumping activity are unwarranted and overemphasized.”
“Consequently, we believe EPA's efforts to study this issue should be discontinued,” the GAO report said.
The report cited one researcher who had a dissenting view: W. Jackson Davis, now an emeritus professor of biological and environmental sciences at the University of California. In three 1980 research papers, Davis “concluded that the scope and magnitude of radioactive contamination of U.S. coastal waters was substantially greater than previously recognized," GAO report said.
But when reached this week, Davis said in an e-mail message that most radioactive waste in the ocean probably had a short half-life of 30 years or less.
“So by now the total radioactivity dumped in those old programs is down to around 12 percent of the original values. I personally don’t think that seismic waves will release much more radioactivity than has already been released through deterioration of containers,” Davis wrote. “In absolute terms, these amounts of radioactive wastes probably are not terribly significant as a human health hazard. They have, however, certainly entered the human food chain, though at levels that are not cause for concern.”
Like the situation with the buried munitions, Moriarty, the BOEM spokesperson, said there’s no scientific evidence to suggest that seismic testing would “damage the integrity of hazardous waste containers” and the agency was unaware of “any instances where such impacts have occurred.”
Martin said the air blasts are released 20 to 30 feet below the waters’ surface and aren’t strong enough to compromise hazardous waste containers or explosives at the bottom of the ocean.
But Porter, of the University of Georgia, disagreed. He said the round-the-clock air blasts “would disrupt the integrity of corroding casements. And it would also dislodge the ordnances themselves, or these barrels of toxic materials.”
He said trillions of tons of hazardous waste and munitions have been discarded by different countries in oceans around the world.
“The problem is huge,” Porter said. “And yet, because it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.”