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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 18, 2007

Calls renewed for munitions cleanup

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

William Aila Jr. displays a propellant charge from a Wai'anae beach. Some people have made necklaces of what they thought was coral.

Photos by JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Wai'anae resident William Aila Jr. holds propellant charges that washed up along Ma'ile Beach after recent rains. While they may be decades old, he says they still ignite and burn.

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Two reports on munitions dumping off the Wai'anae Coast are due out in coming weeks, but the discovery of propellant charges washing up on shore in large quantities has accelerated what might be a wider possible cleanup.

The Army, which has taken the lead in investigating the source of the propellant, said the bead-like 1-inch grains are single-base nitrocellulose, a low explosive, according to preliminary indications.

The size of the pellets indicates they probably were used in large-bore guns to fire a high-explosive round. Included in the same group are smokeless gunpowders and flares.

The discovery, meanwhile, has returned to public attention a problem that was largely known firsthand only to scuba divers: that stretches of Wai'anae Coast waters are littered with old ordnance.

It's also reinvigorated calls for a military cleanup.

"I do know it's there. The extent of it I don't know. Or how they would remove it," said state Senate president Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha). "The fact remains (that munitions) ... are near-shore, and they've got to do something. Who knows what could set these things off."

U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, said he's waiting for military experts to determine what needs to be done about the propellant and for the near-shore munitions study to come out.

Navy divers this week are expected to survey sites where the charges may be concentrated.

"I'm hoping that all of this can be resolved in terms of what direction we should take, because the budget consideration and (Defense Department) authorization bill is imminent," Abercrombie said.

Funding could be added in the 2008 bill for cleanup, he said.

"I want to resolve this. I don't want this (problem) hanging around out there," Abercrombie said. "This has to be addressed and we're going to try to do it sensibly at the same time."

DUMPING REPORT DUE

Marine scientists and divers with side-scan sonar and a robot submersible headed out to Poka'i Bay last June to survey World War II-era munitions dumped in waters ranging from 18 to 300 feet deep.

That report is due by the end of the month and is in "final review" now, said Michael Overfield, a marine archaeologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Maryland.

At the request of the Defense Department, NOAA, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and University of Hawai'i surveyed five square nautical miles off the Wai'anae Coast.

The marine researchers also collected water, fish and sediment samples to compare to sites without munitions.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers survey in 2002 identified more than 2,000 military munitions dumped off Wai'anae.

Cameron Guadiz, an assistant dive instructor with Captain Bruce Scuba Charters, has found hundreds of 5-inch- and 3-inch-diameter shells. He's come across 5-foot torpedoes with fins, and what looked like a coral-encrusted 500-pound bomb.

Much of the ordnance is at a spot called 5-Inch Reef, about three-quarters of a mile off the sewage treatment plant, and another location called Ammo Reef about 200 yards from the Wai'anae boat harbor. Some is in water 45 feet deep, he said.

Some charges have washed ashore at Ma'ili Beach and elsewhere along the coast.

MISTAKEN FOR CORAL

The Army's Technical Center for Explosive Safety was brought in to investigate the propellant grains. The service handed out fliers along the coast advising residents not to touch the charges, and to contact police, fire or ocean safety officials if they are found.

The Army also put out an advisory saying the propellant is "highly flammable" and can ignite from static electricity.

"We accept responsibility for those propellant grains as a military cleanup issue, and we're working diligently and urgently with other agencies to determine the next actions that need to be taken," Troy Griffin, an Army spokesman at Schofield Barracks, said at the time.

But it turns out that the charges may have been washing up for 30 years or more.

One Wai'anae Coast resident thought the yellow, brown or olive charges were "Hawaiian coral." Some took to stringing them into necklaces.

The extruded propellant, with seven holes to ensure even burning, burned faster than a flare when subjected to flame, said Wai'anae resident William Aila Jr.

"A couple of my friends said, 'Oh, yeah, we used that to start our campfires,' " said Guadiz, the dive instructor. "It burns pretty good, evidently."

A second Defense Department study, meanwhile, on deepwater munitions dump sites off Hawai'i and other states, is expected to be briefed to Congress later this month or early next month.

BOMBS OUT THERE, TOO

Publicity about the U.S. military's practice of dumping chemical and conventional weapons at sea decades ago led to records that 4,220 tons of hydrogen cyanide were dumped somewhere off Pearl Harbor in 1944. During that year, the military also dumped 16,000 100-pound mustard bombs "about five miles off of O'ahu."

In 1945, off Wai'anae, the Army dumped thousands of hydrogen cyanide bombs, cyanogen chloride bombs, mustard bombs and lewisite containers. Charts identified some as being in 1,600 feet of water.

U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawai'i, said that while he was pleased to have received assurances by the Army that offshore chemical weapons dumping is being actively investigated, he added he was "concerned about reports that propellant grains, which could pose a safety risk to the public, are being found washing up on the beach off the coast of Wai'anae."

"It is important for the (Army)... to take the necessary steps to neutralize these potentially harmful materials," Akaka said. "I will continue to work with the (Army) ... to address not only the deep-water munitions, but also shallow-water munitions that may pose a health and safety threat to the public."

Abercrombie, however, said that "if something is a couple of thousand feet down there, I'm not going to fool with it. Let that dog lie."

NOAA's Overfield would not reveal any of the findings of the near-shore munitions report expected to be released by the end of the month. But he did say the propellant charges were not identified.

"I'm kind of surprised that nobody down there when we were doing the survey mentioned those to us," Overfield said.

Many apparently didn't even know the bead-like charges are an explosive.

Guadiz, who dives every day, guesses he's seen "a couple pick-up loads" of the charges, but "they are not concentrated in one area. They are scattered all around the reef."

Guadiz was expected to meet with Army officials, who have taken the lead in the investigation of the propellant, to give them the locations where he's seen the charges.

Overfield said it may be possible to "go back over some video and still images or the side-scan data" to see if the grains, about the size of a cigarette filter, show up.

The results of the site survey, during which a boat crisscrossed waters off the Wai'anae Coast in grid fashion, were expected last fall, but were delayed because of time-difference logistics between Hawai'i and NOAA's Maryland office, and because of a malfunction with a mass spectrometer owned by UH, Overfield said.

'TONS OF THIS STUFF'

The mysterious propellant charges have been publicized far and wide.

Tom Baxter remembered the pellets from working at the Olin Winchester ball gunpowder plant in St. Marks, Fla., after he got back from Vietnam in the late 1960s.

"Basically, this stuff came out of naval guns," said Baxter, who still lives in Florida. "They had tons and tons of this stuff. It took them a couple of months to ship all the stuff down in railroad cars."

The Olin plant reprocessed the pellets into faster-burning gunpowder for rifle ammunition.

Determining the origin of the propellant washing up on Wai'anae Coast beaches may be less of a challenge than recovering it from the ocean.

"How can you do it? When you do a drift dive, that's when you see it. It's scattered all over the dive site," Guadiz said. "You can't just go to one place and say, 'That's the whole concentration right there.' It's scattered all over the place."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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