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The Deadliest Catch
September 20, 2012 8:43 AM   Subscribe

The WMD was discovered, quite by chance, lying by the side of a Bridgeville road in late July by a Delaware state trooper on an unrelated callout. Jutting out of the ground, the 75mm shell was encrusted in barnacles and pitted with rust; barely recognisable as a munition at all. The trooper called in his find and a military team took the bomb to Dover Air Force Base for disposal. As with most conventional rounds, a small charge was placed on the side of the shell and detonated to trigger the vintage munition’s own explosive. But something went wrong, and the bomb failed to explode. When the two staff sergeants and technician walked over to inspect the failed detonation, they found a strange black liquid seeping out of the cracked mortar. Given that the shell had been under the sea for the better part of fifty years, the men thought little of the foul-smelling substance until hours later, when their skin began to erupt in agonising blisters. All three were rushed to Kent General hospital, where two were released later after minor treatment. A third, more seriously injured serviceman was transported to Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, where he remained in serious but stable condition with what were only described as “burns or blisters” in a statement issued by the Army later that week. A scientific team were sent to Dover to collect soil samples from the area. The results were clear: the shell had been filled with mustard gas.
posted by Blasdelb (52 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
Not the only one, either: A seafood processing facility north of Bridgeville found a mustard shell mixed in with a haul of clams on its conveyer belt earlier that month.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:47 AM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


“They cannot be bandaged or touched. We cover them with a tent of propped-up sheets. Gas burns must be agonizing because usually the other cases do not complain even with the worst wounds but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out”.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:47 AM on September 20, 2012


Not the only one, either: A seafood processing facility north of Bridgeville found a mustard shell mixed in with a haul of clams on its conveyer belt earlier that month.

There is only one seafood procesing facility of the type in question in Delaware, and that is Sea Watch. It was the source of the Chemical and conventional muntitions that ended up in the driveways.

posted by Blasdelb at 8:50 AM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


And that's why you RTFA before adding "related" links. Sorry!
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:54 AM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Every once in a while, some farmer in Belgium or northern France finds a shell left over from WWI. Army Engineers are always called in to deal with them, and they're very careful -- because a large percentage of them contain poison gas, including mustard. They'll probably be dealing with this for another 200 years.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:02 AM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fucking humans.
posted by odinsdream at 9:03 AM on September 20, 2012 [14 favorites]


It's amazing how much of this stuff just gets stored/dumped and forgotten. Like the neighborhood in DC where landscapers discovered WWI-era chemical weapons, including blistering agents like mustard gas. The cleanup's being going on for 16 years now.
posted by rtha at 9:03 AM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Gotta hand it to the chemical weapons guys - they get the word on high to deliver, and boy have they delivered.
posted by jscott at 9:04 AM on September 20, 2012


"Every once in a while, some farmer in Belgium or northern France finds a shell left over from WWI. Army Engineers are always called in to deal with them, and they're very careful -- because a large percentage of them contain poison gas, including mustard. They'll probably be dealing with this for another 200 years."

There it is called the Iron Harvest. In Belgium as the iron harvest discovered by farmers is carefully placed around field edges, or in gaps in telegraph poles, where it is regularly collected by the Belgian army for disposal by controlled explosion at a specialist centre near Houthulst. The Canadian National Vimy Memorial Site is notable for supposedly having one unexploded munition for every square metre.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:07 AM on September 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


When my dad took over at a new historical society a couple of decades back, the previous director had apparently thought nothing of the vintage rocket shell found sitting in his office (being the home of Vice President Charles Gates Dawes^, who had been a WWI general, this may have seemed an appropriate bit of miscellany). The local police took a different view, and as I understood it, sent it to Fort Sheridan because with at least that type there was no way to be certain it was not filled with chemical munitions.
posted by dhartung at 9:09 AM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


...while phosgene is reminiscent of freshly cut grass...
One of my favorite chemistry professors used almost that exact phrase when describing phogene. He drew the structure up on the blackboard without naming it, mentioned a few of its physical properties, then casually said "It has the odor of freshly mown hay; at least thats what the survivors said." Needless to say he had our attention from there on out. It turns out phosgene (COCl2) when inhaled hits the water in your lungs and undergoes the reaction COCl2 +H20->2HCl+CO2. Lungs full of hydrochloric acid are not good.

On the other hand, it was noted in WWI that mustard gas decreased the white blood cell count in its victims. This cytotoxic property was further investigated and eventually led to the development of Mustargen, the first successful anticancer chemotherapy.
posted by TedW at 9:11 AM on September 20, 2012 [19 favorites]


I used to wonder why it's considered inhumane to gas enemy troops, but A-OK to mutilate them with high explosives or burn them alive with napalm. I decided that the WWI combatants may have all concluded that gas was too unreliable to be useful, so then everyone got to ban it and puff out their chests about how progressive and moral the laws of war are.
posted by thelonius at 9:11 AM on September 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


A really good book about these kind of nasty weapons is A Higher Form of Killing, which I think I picked up after seeing it recommended here a few years ago.

Terrifying stuff, really.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:13 AM on September 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Deadliest Game is a Game of Catch with the Deadliest Catch
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:25 AM on September 20, 2012 [15 favorites]


How do these stockpiles impact the ocean ecosystem when the shells rust open? Yeah the ocean is big, but the shells were dumped in concentration, the chemical is extremely toxic and stuff doesn't always magically disperse evenly water (it may sink and pool or float around in sheets, who knows). I can understand the making of the shells in a war footing, but not the stupidity of dumping in the ocean.
posted by stbalbach at 9:26 AM on September 20, 2012


Sea disposal of chemical weapons was really common through all of the 20th century, roughly between the end of WWI and about 1970. Some of the known munitions locations can be found on this site (direct link to map), but that's only the publicly disclosed sites. Many dumpings were done without a lot of documentation too---there may not be any information in records or even anyone alive who knows about some of these sites.

There are about a dozen kinds of these agents, of widely varying types from blister agents to nerve agents to cyanide and chlorine. One of the best reviews I've seen recently is Bizzigotti et al., 2009 (subscription or institutional access required). From their conclusions:
We conclude that there appears to be sufficient data in the literature on the chemical and physical parameters of the chemical agents phosgene, hydrogen cyanide, cyanogen chloride, sulfur mustard, nitrogen mustard (HN1), Lewisite, Tabun, Sarin, and VX for this purpose. Although some data gaps have been identified, these data gaps are not considered critical to such evaluations. The primary source of uncertainty in the evaluation of the fate, transport, and environmental impacts of these agents remains the rate at which they are released into the environment...
In short, how these chemicals will behave is reasonably well known, and what damage they will cause is too, though questions of the effects low temperatures in the benthic environment of the sea floor remain.

The big mystery is the rate of release of the compounds. Left on it's own, the steel used in the mid-twentieth century will rust through at a rate of about 50 years per inch of thickness. Cold water and lack of oxygen can greatly slow this process, however (see the Titanic, for example). Best estimates right now are only orders of magnitude; we don't know even to the factor of ten how fast these things are leaking.
posted by bonehead at 9:41 AM on September 20, 2012 [7 favorites]


"Bizzigotti et al., 2009 (subscription or institutional access required)"

That is a really cool paper.

If anyone would like a PDF, for the purposes of this academic discussion that we are currently having with each other, just memail me with an email address I can send it to.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:44 AM on September 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


stbalbach, I think we just have to ascribe that to a different time, when the sea (and especially the sea floor) was much less accessible, and before it was viewed as an ecosystem. Obviously to some it was simple expediency, but in general, I think it was simply a lack of alternatives. It wasn't until the late 20th century that even the best-equipped armies in the world -- the US and USSR -- began developing the expertise for chemical weapons disposal, in anticipation of the CWC.
posted by dhartung at 9:47 AM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought this was going to be a science fiction story. Wow!
posted by subdee at 9:58 AM on September 20, 2012


No post about chemical warfare is complete without a link to Dulce Et Decorum Est.
posted by TedW at 10:06 AM on September 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


Neat story. I thought the analysis truck was amazing but the disposal truck blew me away. BTW I almost wore this tie today.
posted by exogenous at 10:14 AM on September 20, 2012


Video of WWII bomb being detonated in central Munich just a few weeks ago. No poison agents, thankfully.
posted by Marauding Ennui at 10:15 AM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


When the two staff sergeants and technician walked over to inspect the failed detonation, they found a strange black liquid seeping out of the cracked mortar. Given that the shell had been under the sea for the better part of fifty years, the men thought little of the foul-smelling substance until hours later, when their skin began to erupt in agonising blisters.

For a moment there I thought this FPP was a cleverly disguised X-Files dissertation.
posted by orange swan at 10:33 AM on September 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


> a link to Dulce Et Decorum Est.

True, but that's a different version from the one I know.
posted by scruss at 10:49 AM on September 20, 2012


Like the neighborhood in DC where landscapers discovered WWI-era chemical weapons, including blistering agents like mustard gas. The cleanup's being going on for 16 years now.

The Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to demolish a house near American University that may sit on top of the so-called Hades munitions burial pit. They don't appear to be anywhere close to done, and the jury is still out on the public health effects.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:58 AM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


The bombing of Wilmington will commence in 30 minutes. Democracy for Delaware!!!1one
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:07 AM on September 20, 2012


But yeah, it's a WWI one weapon. Almost comically inoffensive by today's standards.

The idea that if Iraq *had* had a few of these, then somehow it would have been OK to preemptively bomb them into the Stone Age, is just atrociously wrong. "They didn't find any WMDs" misses the point by a mile. "We're going to invade you if we find out you have weapons" is such a mind-blowingly wrong and dumb assertion I'm shocked even one adult person ever said it in seriousness.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:10 AM on September 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


When I was a kid you could hire somebody with an old, unlicensed jeep, to drive you north from Nags Head, NC up to the Currituck Lighthouse, then inaccessible by road. In those days there wasn't much happening along the banks, it was mostly sand and almost nothing north of Kitty Hawk. Driving up meant a long, slow, bumpy ride on the beach to get beyond the old firing ranges in Duck, a long sandy strip well known to be littered with live ordnance. Scary warning signs lined the dunes for miles. Seeing that area now jammed beach-to-sound with cookie-cutter Mini-McMansions, I'm guessing the sands have been thoroughly raked.
posted by kinnakeet at 11:17 AM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


odinsdream: "Fucking humans."

Aye - we should just nuke 'em all.
posted by symbioid at 11:23 AM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


But yeah, it's a WWI one weapon. Almost comically inoffensive by today's standards.

strongly disagree. compared to a nuke, sure. compared to conventional weapons - extremely painful and evil - if you die, you die. but if you live, your skin and/or lungs are melted. i would much rather get shot.

the wmd argument is a red herring - it was just a pretext, something that was made up - it could have been any invented reason at all.
posted by facetious at 11:30 AM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was aware of the ocean dumping before, but I was just confused reading it how whole, unexploded munitions could show up in piles of ground-up shells. Then the story went in to detail about the grinding and the shaking and the heating and I was just amazed there weren't more people injured or killed.
posted by ckape at 11:34 AM on September 20, 2012


A couple of things that I looked up during the article.

Staring back at me is the unmistakable face of a Combine soldier from Half Life 2 (in reality, a Russian-issue WWII mask).

The Overwatch gas masks are apparently based on PMG and PBF gas masks.

Resting at the bottom of another cabinet is an olive green shell about the size of a Coke bottle. “That’s the 75” Smart tells me. “The most popular, you could say,” he adds in a quiet voice. Hundreds of thousands of these 75s were built during WWI.

75 is a caliber of shell, not the name of a chemical weapon. The AEF switched from 3 inch to 75mm so they could use French guns and ammunition. Their chemical weapons followed suit.
Pictured at right is a fragment of a 75mm shell.… Colored bands were used to identify the shell by the type of gas it carried. A series of one to three bands was typically painted around the upper circumference of a shell, with each color indicating a different classification of gas. White bands always indicated a shell contained a lethal chemical agent such as phosgene. Shells with red, white, and yellow bands were filled with agents classified as “suffocants.” A shell with only red bands indicated that it carried lachrymatory or vesicant (the “blister gasses”) chemicals, such as tear or mustard gas. Finally, yellow or purple bands indicated a smoke or incendiary payload.
“We filled them here at Edgewood, with mustard agent for instance. Then we shipped them, without fuses, to the Western Front.
By the end of the war, the production infrastructure, including federal facilities such as the Edgewood Arsenal in rural Maryland, employed more than 10000 men and women. In addition to Edgewood, 9 other gas facilities produced over 140 tons of gas per day, “an amount greater than the production of Germany, Great Britain, and France combined.” Such mass production quotas, however, were not without risk. An analysis of a single seven-month period at Edgewood revealed 925 casualties and three fatalities, with more than 75 injuries traced directly to mustard gas production. For many soldiers and workers, the long-term health consequences of gas exposure were lifelong.
the team roll out in the Mobile Munitions Assessment System. A white Chevrolet C5500 retrofitted by Farber Speciality Vehicles

The James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies lists 127 known dumpsites across the world, it’s likely even more exist.
posted by zamboni at 11:35 AM on September 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Wow, what a story.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:45 AM on September 20, 2012


I'm on a WWII mailing list with this guy Ed who works at Picatinny Arsenal, and as much as he geeks out over munitions, he's Very Serious about old shells being dug up.

The wire service reports out of Europe come every other week or so, and the more you know about these unexploded shells the scarier they are -- because who knows which ones are full of terrifying gas and which "only" have unstable fuzes?
posted by wenestvedt at 11:52 AM on September 20, 2012


The interactive map at the James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies really brings home the extent of these dumpsites.
posted by Hutch at 11:59 AM on September 20, 2012


One thing I was hoping to see mentioned: is there any testing done for chemical agents in shellfish caught in or near known dump sites? There seemed to be quite a lot of concern for potentially dangerous shell driveways, but less for the food supply. Care for some mustard with your surf and turf special?
posted by jetsetsc at 12:11 PM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's even scarier to note that the JMCNPS database is only the known sites. New sites are being found all the time.
posted by bonehead at 12:13 PM on September 20, 2012


I was a little kid during the Korean war. Our neighbor’s son, Joseph, was killed there and I remember his mother bringing over a letter from a combat buddy about his death. The memory of it stayed with me because of the part about mustard getting on him. I even remember that my Mom was hanging out laundry on a sunny day when she stopped to read it to me. Mustard gas had killed this poor kid who could have been my older brother.

I’ve looked into it on the internet and have never found any historical reference to North Korean use of mustard gas. Then, a couple of weeks ago, a Korean War veteran showed up with an IAMA on Reddit. When I told him my story he said that he had heard rumors about mustard gas, that he had no direct knowledge of it, but that he had given a lot of credence to the rumors.
posted by Huplescat at 1:01 PM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Then Williams was handed a gigantic stroke of luck: interviews with everyone who discovered ordnance in their driveways revealed that they had all purchased their clamshell mix from one hauler, Perry Butler.

Just like in the old detective stories! (and look who did it!)
posted by hat_eater at 1:54 PM on September 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


A mustard gas shell does not really qualify for "MD". Sure, it is very very nasty, but is is not a WMD. Yes, I realize that things like "mass destruction" have highly variant meanings, but it is useful to keep the term WMD restricted to things which are really, really, MD (and a very serious national threat) otherwise you end up with significant military action for some middling arms that are common.
posted by Bovine Love at 1:59 PM on September 20, 2012


> No post about chemical warfare is complete without a link to Dulce Et Decorum Est.

I had John Singer Sargent down as a painter with killer technique who mostly used it for society portraits and pretty Italian gardenscapes and so on. But Gassed is different from any of that. Strange how hell on earth drags an artist's finest out of him.
posted by jfuller at 2:01 PM on September 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


I can understand the making of the shells in a war footing, but not the stupidity of dumping in the ocean.

It's a NIMBY sort of thing. What's amazing is that the US still has the balls to dump their shit all over the world. From unexploded WW I & II ordinance, to landmines left in Viet Nam, to the contaminated Nevada proving grounds, to plutonium waste from manufacturing nuclear weapons the military has repeatedly left their messes and refused to take responsibility until pushed into the corner and having their tit twisted.


Seeing that area [Nags Head, NC up to the Currituck Lighthouse] now jammed beach-to-sound with cookie-cutter Mini-McMansions, I'm guessing the sands have been thoroughly raked.

And I'm not holding my breath till they turn up more munitions. Whoopsie!
Ya can't be makin' $$ when your rakin'!! Let's get these puppies sold.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:53 PM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


"We're going to invade you if we find out you have weapons" is such a mind-blowingly wrong and dumb assertion I'm shocked even one adult person ever said it in seriousness.

Why? Saddam had actually used chemical weapons few years before; he had boasted about retaining chemical weapons; he had later been very reluctant to prove that he had complied with an ultimatum to prove that he had eliminated his stocks; and then he seemed to be making efforts to conceal weapons that he had retained.

The USA's fears about Saddam weren't theoretical: the USA and the rest of the world depend on a supply of oil from the Middle East, particularly from Saddam's regional neighbours. Saddam had recently invaded one of them (Kuwait); had been at war with another of them (Iran) for around thirty years; and still had territorial claims against them and possibly some others. WMDs neutralise your opponents' armies and terrify their population; if Saddam retained WMDs he'd be be able to use them as a shield while he re-armed and then threaten his neighbours again. All this meant that it was very important to know that he was in compliance with the UN resolutions requiring him to dispose of his WMDs, but he danced around the subject and imposed arbitrary restrictions on the UN inspectors.

We now know (we think) why he was doing this: a recently declassified CIA report (PDF) shows that USAn intelligence didn't recognise that Saddam's fresh pattern of lies and evasions in 1995 represented a face-saving capitulation rather than a continuation of his earlier "cheat and retreat" techniques. But their conclusion, while wrong, wasn't unreasonable: the Iraqis were indeed behaving suspiciously. The problem was that the Iraqi motives were chaotic, paranoid, and concerned with national pride and the perceived threat from Iran rather than with a desire to protect a program that had been largely dismantled.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:07 PM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


possible != reasonable. When considering the impact level of the response, quite possibly plausible != reasonable. The term "beyond a reasonable doubt" is used in law for a reason. Yes, that was one possible explanation. Yet a lot of countries did not accept that as the reasonable one, especially considering the impact of being wrong.

Being a fool, even if you had evidence to support your position, does not make you right or reasonable. And yes, sometimes even the reasonable position is wrong (and sometimes the non-reasonable position is right), but an awful lot of people/countries felt this position was unreasonable.
posted by Bovine Love at 8:30 PM on September 20, 2012


A mustard gas shell does not really qualify for "MD". Sure, it is very very nasty, but is is not a WMD. Yes, I realize that things like "mass destruction" have highly variant meanings, but it is useful to keep the term WMD restricted to things which are really, really, MD (and a very serious national threat) otherwise you end up with significant military action for some middling arms that are common.

Like, ... two mustard gas shells? Detonated in a crowded mall or theatre, perhaps? Or, say, all the bits of Seoul one can hit from North Korea with artillery?
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:37 PM on September 20, 2012


My grandfather (here shown at a hospital in France after WWI) was bald almost his entire life from the effects of mustard gas in the Argonne Woods in WWI. He never talked about it other than once, in his 80's, to say "It was a terrible, terrible thing".
posted by pjern at 11:12 PM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a great thread—thanks for the original link, Blasdelb, and to everyone else for the extra links and discussion. I've passed the article on to the guys at the company where I used to work, which makes (among other things) detection systems for chemical weapons.

I was somehow surprised to read that mustard gas only has a "faint aroma" of mustard. 2-chloroethyl ethyl sulfide, or "half-mustard gas", which is used as an analogue for testing purposes, has a horrible stench and I had just assumed that the full stuff would be worse, which now I think about it is completely backwards. (Sulfur mustard has an extra Cl on the end compared with 2-CEES and is denser, with a higher boiling point and lower vapour pressure.) 2-CEES is far from harmless, of course, but it's safer than sulfur mustard. I was always rather glad not to have to go on the trips to test our products with the real chemical weapons agents. I'm happier just reading about it.
posted by daisyk at 2:49 AM on September 21, 2012


Grandfather-in-Law talked about Argonne the one time we met him. His wife later told us it was the only time she ever heard him speak of it - he was the lone survivor of his unit.
posted by dragonsi55 at 4:56 AM on September 21, 2012


Like, ... two mustard gas shells? Detonated in a crowded mall or theatre, perhaps? Or, say, all the bits of Seoul one can hit from North Korea with artillery?

Blowing up/poisoning/etc a mall or theatre is not "MD". The whole point of the idea of WMD's is that possession of even a few (or perhaps even one) significantly alters the strategic position of a country. This is why Iran, and others, pursue nuclear weapons so hard: Even the position of a single weapon will give another country a serious pause before attacking them. The US invaded Iraq despite believing they had some chemical weapons. If Iraq had a real WMD (not just a program to create them, which they also probably didn't have, but it is more debatable) they would very likely not have invaded; they potential retaliation cost is just too much.

Mustard gas has been with us for a long time; it didn't slow countries down from war. Real WMD's do; they significantly alter the strategic landscape.

It is a serious problem to dilute the term down to meaning tactical weapons; the term helps us evaluate the risk with other nations. I guess eventually they'll just invent another term to replace WMD.
posted by Bovine Love at 5:48 AM on September 21, 2012


According to the wikipedia article, it sounds like chemical weapons are WMDs by definition.

Also, this quote speaks to what thelonius was saying above:

In addition, the gas was unreliable due to wind dispersion and often drifted back into the users own lines. The public was so horrified by the results and the military so unimpressed that the complete elimination of this class of weapon was widely supported after the war. Large modern stock piles continue to exist...
posted by sneebler at 8:12 AM on September 21, 2012


Bovine Love, I can tell you categorically that, in NA at least, seeking to obtain or holding any of the mustard gas variants would contravene the 1973 Convention on Chemical weapons. At the very least serious people in serious suits would be visiting, if not the men in masks and black boots. It's very much considered a WMD substance.
posted by bonehead at 12:11 PM on September 21, 2012


(1993 convention. sorry)
posted by bonehead at 12:12 PM on September 21, 2012


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