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Retired Navy munitions expert raises concerns on potential danger of offshore drilling

More than a dozen municipalities wants to delay offshore seismic testing until potential harm from munitions dumps can be studied. (Source: SC Small Business Chamber of Commerce) More than a dozen municipalities wants to delay offshore seismic testing until potential harm from munitions dumps can be studied. (Source: SC Small Business Chamber of Commerce)
James Barton, a recognized underwater munitions expert, spoke at Tuesday's news conference. (Source: Live 5) James Barton, a recognized underwater munitions expert, spoke at Tuesday's news conference. (Source: Live 5)
CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) -

A retired U.S. Navy Bomb Squad member is expected to raise concerns about the potential harm seismic surveys could cause along the South Carolina coast.

James Barton, a recognized underwater munitions expert, will speak at a news conference Tuesday at the South Carolina Maritime Center, according to S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Frank Knapp. Barton has addressed a US Presidential Commission; a US congressional oversight committee, and the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

"You don't need to be a munitions expert to figure out that nothing good comes from blasting old ammo dumps with seismic cannons or that something bad may wash ashore later," Barton said. "As for myself, I view the prospect of blasting ammo dumps with powerful seismic cannons as utterly reckless and entirely avoidable."

The group has concerns the search for oil could harm conventional and chemical munitions dumped in the Atlantic off the South Carolina coastline.

"It's hard for us to imagine today, but there were numerous sites along the Atlantic seaboard where our Department of Defense and even our Department of Energy, or the precursor thereof, disposed of chemical weapons and toxic chemicals and even radioactive waste at sea, and just dropped barrels of all this material at sea," Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said. "And it's confirmed that five of these chemical sites were offshore of South Carolina and four radioactive sites."

A release from the chamber states the Department of Defense dumped conventional and chemical weapons were officially dumped in 33 sites off the Atlantic Coast from 1917 to the 1970s. 

Barton says modern marine technology is available to accurately chart the location of such munitions dumps without disturbing them, but alleged seismic testing companies won't utilize the technology because they work for the oil companies, not the people who live in the areas that could be potentially affected.

"And oil companies don't like complications getting in the way," Barton said. "To drive home the point, whose interests are served when seismic vendors chart a straight course through bomb-fouled waters as opposed to the starts and stops required for avoiding them?" 

Barton said there are cancer-causing chemicals in some of the munitions dumps. Tecklenburg said the Department of Defense listed more than 17,000 tons of chemicals dumped over the decades that include mustard, cyanide compounds and arsenic.

"There's bad chemicals out there we don't want to disturb," Tecklenburg said.

The chamber has opposed offshore drilling and seismic testing since January 2015, stating it threatens the "vibrant coastal economy of tourism, commercial fishing and recreation."

Knapp says supplemental comments filed with the Natural Marine Fishing Service requesting that the location of these dumping sites be pinpointed and research be conducted to make sure seismic testing could not disrupt or dislodge any chemical weapons there.

"The pushback we've gotten from the seismic testing industry is, 'Don't worry, be happy. There's nothing that can possibly happen regarding seismic airgun blasting and dislodging or disrupting this material and setting it free into the water to impact our beaches and our commercial fishing,'" Knapp said. 

He said that if those concerns are not addressed, a lawsuit could be filed requesting an injunction.

The Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey's James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies displays a Google Map of known chemical weapons munitions sites.

It shows two near the Charleston coastline and two others further out at sea. 

Of the two closest to the Charleston Harbor, the first lists multiple dumping events during periods that began on March 21, 1946, and ended sometime in 1946 or 1947. Munitions dumped at that location included mustard-filled projectiles, M70 115lb bombs, German-produced mustard and tabun bombs, U.S.-produced mustard, lewisite and CG bombs, GA bombs, phosgene contained in bombs and nerve gas bombs.

The second lists containers of lewisite and nitrogen mustard were dumped between March 20 and March 27, 1958.

Geophysical trade industry: Seismic surveys have been happening in Atlantic for 50 years

A spokesperson for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, the global trade organization representing segments of the geophysical and exploration industry, disputed Barton's claims, saying their technology does the opposite of what Barton described.

"Geophysical survey technology is actually used to safely locate and remove munitions," spokesperson Gail Adams-Jackson said in a statement.

She also said seismic surveys have been happening in the Atlantic for more than 50 years.

"They have been mainly for scientific purposes and not for oil and gas exploration," she said. "In these 30+ years of those surveys, none of them have been disturbed the unexploded ordnance nor toxic waste storage containers."

Seismic surveys use compressed air sound sources that only release compressed air at pressure levels far below the energy required to activate explosive materials or structurally damage waste containers, according to a release from the IAGC. Even when surveys are located directly over abandoned ordnance or waste disposal areas, the energy from the sound source is insufficient to present a risk of cracking or damaging containers or activating explosive materials. 

Map shows two dumping locations near Charleston coast

The Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey's James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies displays a Google Map of known chemical weapons munitions sites.

It shows two near the Charleston coastline and two others further out at sea. 

Of the two closest to the Charleston Harbor, the first lists multiple dumping events during periods that began on March 21, 1946, and ended sometime in 1946 or 1947. Munitions dumped at that location included mustard-filled projectiles, M70 115lb bombs, German-produced mustard and tabun bombs, U.S.-produced mustard, lewisite and CG bombs, GA bombs, phosgene contained in bombs and nerve gas bombs.

The second lists containers of lewisite and nitrogen mustard were dumped between March 20 and March 27, 1958.

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