Introduction to Underwater UXO and Its Impact On The Environment

Article submitted by UXO Guest Author Richard D. Albright. For more information on the UXO Guest Author program, click here.

Underwater ordnance has existed since the beginning of ordnance1. While the biggest threat to humans and aquatic species comes from Chemical and Explosive Ordnance, even lead bullets pose a risk.

UXO is inherently dangerous to humans and the environment, for its explosive hazard, for chromic exposure to its toxic Munitions and Explosive Constituents (MEC), and for acute exposure to Chemical Warfare Material (CWM). Underwater UXO presents a unique set of problems and realities involving human contact and the environment. This article will explore specific aspects of the underwater UXO threat to safety and the environment. The book will also present realistic solutions.


Location usually takes into consideration whether the water is fresh or salty, cold or warm, deep or shallow, subject to wave action, current action, volcanic activity, sedimentation, and pH or acidity and human activity such as fishing, swimming, diving or anchoring. For example, the Doomsday Wreck, a World War II transport ship with 1400 tonnes of munitions stranded in the Thames River will likely kill hundreds of people when it finally detonates (see spontaneous detonation below) because of its location.2


This refers to the movement of ordnance deposited underwater or fired on water ranges. The ability of the underwater munitions to move can be important to human contact. We use the term migration here in the broadest sense to include the scattering effect of ordnance thrown overboard due to boat drift and lateral directional movement while sinking because of the shape of the ordnance item and/or currents (described in more detail under the heading density). Bombs and other thin skinned ordnance mines can float once their skins corrode away, drifting into boat paths or onto beaches. Landmines are now often made of plastic to avoid detection and will float if implanted on a beach or eroded from land during a flood. Mines for ships are designed to float and can drift if they break away from their moorings.

Migration also includes the rolling of ordnance during storm events or in strong currents. Storms frequently cast or roll even large heavy shells up onto beaches. "Royal Navy bomb disposal experts are being called out daily to detonate unexploded bombs, mines and shells washed up on Scotland's beaches. The Ministry of Defence (UK) estimates almost 2,000 potentially lethal explosive devices are washed ashore each year."3

The strong winds and heavy rains from the 2004 land fall of Hurricane Jeanne, partially exposed an unexploded 10-foot long Tiny Tim rocket in the driveway a Florida residence. EOD responded and removed the 1940s-era rocket. These rockets were used in training for WW II's D-Day invasion. A few days following discovery of this rocket, a second unexploded rocket was found along the sea wall near where the first rocket was found. In 2004, EOD teams in Florida responded to five explosives and emergency calls after hurricanes.4

Often ordnance items are pumped in with sand to replenish eroded beaches. "The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says that of the more than 1,100 munitions discovered on the beaches in Surf City following a beach-replenishment project..."6 Ordnance is also dredged up from river or bay channel bottoms and winds up in dredge spoils. Dredged up artificial islands are used for airstrips, housing and resorts.

The Danforth style anchor has been an immense improvement for small boats, as its widespread acceptance implies. However, it has the unfortunate ability to snag ordnance items while weighing anchor.

Ordnance is frequently moved or raised while being caught in fishing seines, crab drags and oyster or clam dredging or tonging. A massive undertaking is now occurring in New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland to check driveways paved with clamshells as these often contain small ordnance items dredged up with clamshells. On one occasion, the shell contained polymerized mustard gas which badly burned an explosive ordnance technician from Dover Air Force Base.

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(Density) There are three primary ways that ordnance ends up underwater: Dumping (disposal); Firing or Bombing (at targets or in combat); and, sinking of war or supply ships. For purposes of this book, sunken ships with munitions and dumped or disposal sites (sometimes also in sunken ships or submarines) are treated the same.

Underwater Ordnance resulting from Combat and that from Target Practice generally is found in a scattered pattern. Often there is a denser concentration closer to the target. Typically wide area assessments are done to find the area of greatest concentration and those areas are prioritized.

Ordnance dumped from a moving vessel is of course scattered. In deeper water, ordnance dumped from a stationary vessel can also be scattered due to drift as it is sinking. Even in shallow water, the drift of the barge or boat can scatter ordnance. (It is unwise to anchor a barge or boat, used to dump ordnance, since an item could become tangled in the anchor or rode and detonate upon the anchor reaching the hull.

(Wide Area Assessments)6 A variety of metal detectors can be used for wide area assessments. Generally a boat mounted detector (twin beam magnetometers) or one mounted on an underwater planing sled to prevent snagging or bumping into a UXO item are used. For munitions sunk into silt, a towed array on wheels can be used. In either case, wide lanes are used and a computer program which will give density statistical calculations is required


The advent of detailed sonar allows a wide area assessment where the bottom is not strewn with rocks the size of the predominant ordnance items.

(Human Death or Injury from Detonations of Underwater UXO) "In July 1965, such a tragedy took place aboard the fishing vessel Snoopy. The Snoopy was trawling for scallops off the coast of North Carolina when it caught a large cylinder-shaped item in its net. A witness said he could clearly see a long round object swaying in the net amidships over the Snoopy. What happened next is unclear; but an explosion occurred that caused the loss of the Snoopy and eight members of the crew." 7

(Human Death or Injury from Chemical Underwater UXO) "Most of the sulfur mustard found in Germany after World War II was dumped into the Baltic Sea. Between 1966 and 2002, fishermen have found around 700 chemical weapons in the Bornholm region, most of which contained sulfur mustard. One of the more frequently dumped weapons was the "Sprühbüchse 37" (SprüBü37, Spray Can 37, 1937 being the year of its fielding with the German Army). These weapons contain sulfur mustard mixed with a thickener, which renders it a tarlike viscosity. When the content of the SprüBü37 comes in contact with water, only the sulfur mustard in the outer layers of the lumps of viscous mustard hydrolyses, leaving amber-colored residues which still contain most of the active sulfur mustard. On mechanically breaking these lumps, e.g. with a fishing net's drag board or with the hands, the enclosed sulfur mustard is still as active as it has been at the time the weapon has been dumped. These lumps, when washed ashore, can be mistaken for amber which can lead to severe health problems." 8

"In 1972, the United States Congress banned the practice of disposing chemical weapons into the ocean. However, 64 million pounds of nerve and mustard agents had already been dumped into the ocean waters off the United States by the U.S. Army. According to a 1998 report created by William Brankowitz, a deputy project manager in the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency, the Army created at least 26 chemical weapons dump sites in the ocean off at least 11 states on both the west and east coasts. Additionally because of poor records, they currently only know the rough whereabouts of half of them.9"

(Human Chromic Illness from Munitions Constituents in Seafood and Drinking Water) Even low level toxins from underwater munitions can escalate up the food chain. The large fish, often most desirable for fishermen to catch can have the most contamination. Even some small fish like sardines used for human consumption can contain high amounts of oil which can concentrate certain toxins.

Sunken ships themselves can contain the dangerous contaminant, PCB. "Subsequent testing found PCBs in the wiring, insulation, paint, gaskets, caulking, plastic and other non-metallic materials in almost all of the Navy's ships built prior to 1976." 10 Farm raised salmon are often fed menhedan an oily fish caught in the lower Chesapeake Bay. These fish have large amounts of PCBs from a Navy ghost fleet moored in the James River. Hence the farm raised salmon, contain high amounts of PCBs. Similarly, fish can accumulate other man made toxins, such as explosives, in their system.

Of course, ordnance deposited in fresh water, such as rivers or the Great Lakes, poses the additional threat if the body of water is used for drinking water. This is inherently no different from buried or range impact UXO explosives leaching into a drinking water aquifer. A U.S. Seventh Circuit court case, Steven B. Pollack, et al. v. U.S. Department of Justice, et al., alleges that the government's discarding of fired lead bullets off-range in the Great Lakes near a North Chicago water intake pipe in the munitions impact area threatens local drinking water which has lead in the drinking water. 11

In arid regions, salt water can be desalinated for use as drinking water. It is unknown to what degree if any, ions such as perchlorate or explosive or chemical warfare material are separated out during the desalination process.

Lake Michigan: Fort Sheridan is approximately 30 miles north of the Sears Tower in downtown Chicago, and 15 miles south of the State line for Wisconsin. A report on Fort Sheridan suggests as many as 100,000 unexploded anti aircraft rounds are abandoned on the floor of Lake Michigan. Since no detailed survey is available, this figure was arrived at by using a 10% dud ratio, calculated against an estimated one million rounds known to have been fired there for training during the course of WWII. As you can see from the current nautical chart, there are indeed a number of municipal fresh water intake cribs (or "straws") in the immediate vicinity.

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Footnotes and Resources Used
Photos by: James Barton; U.S. Army Technical Center for Explosives Safety (USATCES); and AMPRO Consultants
1) Rare lead bars discovered off the coast of Ibiza may be Carthaginian Munitions from before the time of Christ, Science Daily: 12/17/2008
2) The Doomsday Wreck by Mick Hamer, New Scientist, 21 August 2004
3) Sea Shells; Deadly Harvest of Munitions is Washed Up on Scotland's Beaches, Vic Rodrick, 2006 Mail on Sunday; London (UK). ProQuest Information and Learning.
4) Munitions True Stories 5) WWI ship's log shows it dumped munitions off Surf City By Donna Weaver Staff Writer, Atlantic City Press, Sunday, September 07, 2008
6) Wide Area Detection and Identification of Underwater UXO Using Structural Acoustic Sensors by J. A. Bucaro; B. H. Houston; M. Saniga; H. Nelson; T. Yoder; L. Kraus; L. Carin; Naval Research Lab Washington DC, January 2007,
7) Munitions At Sea, A Guide for Commercial Maritime Industries. Prepared by the Defense Ammunition Center U.S. Army Technical Center for Explosives Safety (USATCES) (918) 420-8919. See also, A Fisherman's Guide to Explosive Ordnance, UNC Sea Grant College Publication UNC-SG-81-05, May 1981.
8) Wikipedia.
9) Ibid.
10) Navy Ship 'Reefing' May Have Down Side, Environmentalists Say by Andrew Stelzer, The New Standard Thursday, May 25, 2006
11) Defense Environment Alert - 3/17/2009

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