Seabed weapons dumps stir fears
Hawaii congressmen and a state lawmaker express concern over old chemical bombs
U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka said yesterday he is "gravely concerned" about the possible health risk posed by tons of military munitions dumped in state waters over three decades, and has introduced a bill that would provide for cleanup funds if a Pentagon study deems it necessary.
"I am gravely concerned about the public's safety and the people of Hawaii," Akaka said at a news conference with U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie. "They (the Army) must be good neighbors."
Chemical munitions -- including 31,000 mustard gas bombs, 31,000 mustard gas-filled mortar shells, 1,000 1-ton mustard gas agent containers and 5,655 other types of ordnance -- were dumped at at least three sites off the islands between 1941 and 1972.
Munitions have been found off Waianae and Kalaeloa (Barbers Point).
According to Akaka's bill, the dumps were made within 12 miles of the coastline. Similar chemical munitions were dumped in at least 10 other states, including Alaska and California.
The military released a five-page progress report on Feb. 1 that said more study is needed to determine whether the munitions have had any long-term effects on the environment and residents.
A more comprehensive report is expected in June or July.
The Hawaii congressmen declined to speculate over the possibility that the munitions have contributed to high cancer rates or other long-term illnesses in Waianae.
Abercrombie did say the munitions pose possible "health hazards." He added that "we're in virgin territory," as there have been no studies to determine whether sunken chemical munitions have any significant environmental effects.
But state Rep. Maile Shimabukuro, whose district includes Waianae, said many residents believe the high incidence of cancer in the community is linked to the weapons.
She noted that two well-known Waianae surfers and lifeguards, Rell Sunn and Pua Mokuau, died of breast cancer in the late 1990s.
Even before information on the munitions was released, she added, there were questions about how the two women could have been struck down in the "primes of their lives."
Now, Shimabukuro said, many Waianae residents are thinking twice before going into the water. "This just went into the heart of the community," she said. "It's such a precious resource."
U.S. Senate Bill 2295, which was introduced Friday and has a companion in the U.S. House, would require the Army to complete the munitions survey they have already started.
It would also provide funding if the Army says some or all of the munitions should be removed and set up a monitoring program to determine whether the weapons pose any long-term threat.
The Army's progress report says several other countries, including England and Australia, have found that the best way to deal with underwater munitions sites is to restrict access to them and document their locations on navigational charts.
The report also noted that the effects of sea water on munitions vary, depending on the weapon and the conditions.
Abercrombie said sea water could very well preserve munitions, limiting their effects on the environment.