Army sees no toxic threat in sea dump
By Will Hoover
Advertiser Leeward O'ahu Writer
By Will Hoover
WAI'ANAE — A high-level Army official told people at a special meeting of the Wai'anae Neighborhood Board last night that thousands of tons of chemical munitions dumped at two locations off O'ahu during and immediately after World War II "do not currently pose an immediate threat to the health and safety" of the people of Hawai'i.
The official also said the military does not think the munitions should be retrieved.
Tad Davis, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for the environment, apologized to the approximately 70 people at the gathering at Wai'anae District Park for the short notice in announcing he would be here, but said last night's little-publicized meeting was due to a recent change of his scheduling.
Davis said the purpose of the meeting was to update the community on what the military had learned during "months of exhaustive research" through more than a half-million pages of archival pages, and numerous military studies on the effects of seawater on the chemical munitions.
He also said the joint military operation wanted to work with the community and to encourage its input and suggestions as well as its support in locating individuals still living who may have firsthand knowledge of the munitions disposal that took place six decades ago.
Davis said the military had identified two locations where, he said, 2,600 tons of mustard, cyanogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide and lewisite were dumped between 1944 and 1946.
He said the chemical weapons were produced during World War II because opposing nations had made similar weapons and the military thought it needed a retaliatory capability if chemical weapons were used against U.S. forces first. Dumping the chemicals at selected sites in the ocean was considered the safest way to dispose of the weapons.
He said that 60 years ago, the limited options in disposing of such weapons were an open burn, which would introduce toxins into the atmosphere; burial in the ground, which would have presented an undesirable health hazard; or disposal "well offshore in deep water with the intent that no human being would ever come into contact with them ever again."
One such site, he said, was about 10 miles out to sea off Pearl Harbor in about 1,200 feet of water. Another site was about 10 miles off the Wai'anae Coast in about 6,000 feet of water. Davis said the military believes it may also have identified another disposal location about 5 miles out from Pearl Harbor, but more study needed to be done to confirm that.
Davis stressed that much more study and research need to be done and that last night's update was an interim report. But he said various studies of what occurs when the chemical munitions come in contact with seawater have concluded that such munitions are better off left alone.
Davis said the military has come to a preliminary conclusion that the weapons now pose little threat if left where they are and, in fact, could pose a greater safety hazard if people tried to retrieve them.
Instead, he said, the military wants to establish a system of surveying and monitoring the disposal sites on a continuing basis.
During a question-and-answer period, residents expressed concerns about why the documentation of the disposals is so difficult to find. They asked when was the last time such weapons were dumped in Hawai'i.
"It has not been an easy process," David said of locating the documentation. "It's not as easy as going down to the National Archives and opening the drawer marked 'C' for chemical munitions."
Part of the difficulty has been locating the numerous places the information might be stored.
He said that as far as the military can determine, the last time chemical munitions were disposed in Hawaiian waters was in 1946.
When a woman asked how the disposed chemical munitions may have affected the health of people in Hawai'i over the past 60 years, Davis said the information could be determined by the results of the site surveys.
Davis said a final initial report should be completed around June, and it would be followed by recommendations that would include such things as additional seawater analysis and surveying.
Board chairwomen Cynthia Rezentes said she had heard both optimism and skepticism from the community at large about what the military intends to do about the chemical weapons disposal.
"We'll just have to wait and see what happens," she said.
More than one person at the meeting thanked Davis and his staff for their candor in outlining the problem and what can be done about it. But others were less impressed.
"It's disappointing that the military is unwilling to make a commitment to do a cleanup," said Marti Townsend, a staff employee with Kahea, the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance. "He said their policy right now is not to retrieve these chemical weapons. I'm really concerned about the saturation level of the ocean."
Reach Will Hoover at email@example.com.