BOSTON – BOSTON (AP) — State and federal officials worked Tuesday to decontaminate a clam boat anchored in isolation off Massachusetts after it dredged up old munitions containing mustard gas, severely sickening a crewman.
The Coast Guard was trying to locate the two military shells, which the crew tossed overboard in about 60 feet of water about 45 miles south of Long Island, said Coast Guard Petty Officer James Rhodes. He acknowledged finding the shells will be difficult.
The military used the ocean as a dumping ground for munitions from after World War II through 1970. While the tons of old chemical weapons in offshore waters present a danger to fishermen, experts don't believe they are a possible source of weapons for terrorists.
The Atlantic City, N.J.-based vessel was fishing Sunday in a charted munitions dumping zone, but the designation is just a warning and carries no fishing restrictions, Rhodes said.
The two shells — about a foot long and three inches in diameter — came aboard in a haul of clams. The Coast Guard believes one of the shells cracked or otherwise leaked its contents.
On Tuesday, a National Guard team boarded the vessel, the ESS Pursuit, to test for contamination, while the Coast Guard worked to secure the ship in waters off New Bedford so that it can be moored and decontaminated. The captain and first mate have declined to leave the 145-foot dragger, fearing it could run aground, the Coast Guard said.
The boat had returned to New Bedford early Monday after one of its six crewmen, Konstantin Burndshov, reported blistering and shortness of breath.
Hours later, another crewman was brought ashore after he reported feeling lightheaded. He was examined and released. Two other crewmen left the boat late Monday, with one reporting nose and eye irritation.
Burndshov had painful blisters about three-quarters of an inch high on an arm and a leg, said Dr. Edward Boyer, a toxicologist who is treating the man at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester.
Boyer suspected exposure to mustard gas, used most frequently during World War I, given Burndshov's telltale symptoms: blistering and the onset of his symptoms about 24 hours after exposure. On Monday night, blood and urine tests confirmed the diagnosis. Boyer said even though Burndshov was wearing protective clothing, including oil skins and elbow-length gloves, the mustard gas still penetrated to his skin.
"It literally pulls the top of the skin off the layer underneath it," Boyer said. The doctor said Burndshov was "handling it very well," and Burndshov was listed in good condition at UMass Memorial.
The Defense Department began using the ocean as a dumping ground for chemical and conventional munitions after World War II. The military says it stopped in 1970, and two years later Congress banned waste disposal in oceans, including chemical weapons.
Officials say it's impossible to know exactly how much and what type of weapons have been dumped in the ocean because of incomplete records. A 2001 Army report found 74 past instances of ocean disposal — 32 off U.S. shores and 42 off foreign coasts. For example, in 1967 the Army dumped 4,577 one-ton containers of a mustard agent and 7,380 sarin rockets off the New Jersey shore, according to Army records.
Only some of the ocean dumps were mapped, and chemical munitions have been found in areas they weren't supposed to have been dumped, such as just a few miles off Hawaii, said Craig Williams of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a Kentucky-based organization.
In 1976, a fisherman in Hawaii was burned after bringing up a mortar round filled with mustard gas. A mustard gas-filled artillery shell was found in Delaware in 2004 after it was dredged up by a clam boat off New Jersey and remained intact after being sent through a crusher that was making clamshell driveway fill. Three bomb disposal experts were injured dismantling it.
Mustard gas, also called sulphur mustard, is usually not a gas at all, but a thick, odorless and colorless liquid that turns solid in temperatures over 58 degrees. It looks brown when mixed with other chemicals and has a garlic-like smell.
Mustard gas can be deadly if it's used as an aerosol and inhaled, causing blisters and other problems in the lungs. More frequently, it's used to weaken the enemy by forcing them to devote men and resources to get incapacitated victims off the battlefield and into care, said Dr. Steve Bird, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a chemical weapons expert.
The gas was used most frequently during World War I, but has been used sporadically since, including during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, he said. The chemical retains its potency over time, though some of its components break down, he said.
"The stuff still works just the same, and is still as toxic as it was before," Bird said.
The tons of chemical weapons underwater are an extremely unlikely source of weapons for terrorists, Williams said, given the difficulty in locating them, uncertainty about the hazards they present in an inevitably deteriorated condition and the fact that other dangerous chemicals are more readily available.
"That's pretty far-fetched," he said. "If I'm a terrorist and I want to use chemical weapons, I can go to 16 hardware stores and get the stuff I need to make it, rather than be trolling around in the middle of the ocean."
Associated Press writer Anne Flaherty in Washington contributed to this report.