Florida's WWII training left untold hazards for oil speculators

FORT PIERCE, FLA. - Before D-Day hit Normandy, our heroes stormed the beaches here.

Now, 75 years later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is combing the beach and ocean for the bombs, rockets and other munitions left behind at the former Fort Pierce Naval Amphibious Training Base. This week, a consultant working for the corps scoured the area in a boat just south of Vero Beach, looking for whatever ordnance got dropped or dumped.

That search and others like it take on a new urgency, as the federal government considers allowing several companies to shoot powerful seismic air guns along the ocean floor, from Delaware to Florida, to explore for oil and gas.

A defense waste expert fears that powerful blasts from the airguns could unleash explosive materials miles beneath the sea, "disrupt severely corroded yet otherwise stable concentrations of sea-dumped munitions," injuring or killing beachcombers when "intact" munitions wash ashore. Curious dolphins and other marine life also could be at risk.

Before D-Day hit Normandy, our heroes stormed the beaches here.

Now, 75 years later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is combing the beach and ocean for the bombs, rockets and other munitions left behind at the former Fort Pierce Naval Amphibious Training Base. This week, a consultant working for the corps scoured the area in a boat just south of Vero Beach, looking for whatever ordnance got dropped or dumped.

That search and others like it take on a new urgency, as the federal government considers allowing several companies to shoot powerful seismic air guns along the ocean floor, from Delaware to Florida, to explore for oil and gas.

A defense waste expert fears that powerful blasts from the airguns could unleash explosive materials miles beneath the sea, "disrupt severely corroded yet otherwise stable concentrations of sea-dumped munitions," injuring or killing beachcombers when "intact" munitions wash ashore. Curious dolphins and other marine life also could be at risk.

The story starts in 1943 when the military set up the Joint Army-Navy Experimental and Testing Board to develop and test procedures for breaching and removing beach fortifications in Europe and Japan. 

The 19,280-acre Fort Pierce training site extended about 25 miles from near Vero Beach to near Jensen Beach and included North and South Hutchinson Islands.

Photos: Military training taking place during World War II in Fort Pierce

There the Navy constructed more than 450 buildings and other improvements, including roads, water and sewer systems.

Up to 40,000 personnel trained at the installation, including "frogmen," the precursors to the Navy Seals. They trained for Naval Underwater Demolition Teams.

Amphibious training missions included high-explosive rockets, bombs, anti-aircraft guns and small arms.

Soldiers fortified beaches with concrete and steel-beamed "horned sculleys" along the base's northern portion, and they tested ordnance against the fortifications by shelling the beaches.

In "Images of America, World War II in Fort Pierce," by Florida Institute of Technology history professor Robert Taylor, one photo depicts an 8,000-pound bomb exploding on North Hutchinson Island.

"Blasts like these routinely rocked the citizens of Fort Pierce around the clock and caused considerable damage to the city sewer system," the caption reads.

Taylor said, in 1946, as soon as the soldiers could decommission the base, they could go home. So they would take large landing craft offshore, lower a big ramp and use bulldozers to push piles of ammunition shells into the ocean.

"For years they washed up on the beaches," Taylor said. "20 millimeter, 40 millimeter."

On land, disposal often was equally as abrupt.

"They would dig holes," Taylor explained. "They buried jeeps ... and probably some trucks."

Today, the stretch of barrier island encompassing the former military training area is mostly mid-rise condominiums, single-family homes, townhouses and low-rise condos, and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of the long-term cleanup.

The federal agency's Jacksonville district manages the so-called Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) program in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The district's FUDS program is the fourth-largest in the corps. It handles 146 sites and executed $17 million in cleanups last year.

When done, the Fort Pierce site cleanup alone will approach $30 million.

But the industry charge to search for oil and gas using powerful airguns in the Atlantic has raised questions among experts, such as Barton, about how much is known regarding what types of munitions have been dumped where, and how well documented they were.

The airgun surveys would be far offshore from where the Fort Pierce training took place. Of the seven applicants looking to use airguns off Florida, six want to scan about as far south as middle Brevard County and one about as far south as the Bahamas, yet far east of Florida. 

But Barton, the Norfolk, VA-based disposal expert, is deeply worried about airgun testing along the Eastern Seaboard, because of the lack of accurate records of where munitions were dumped.

Under seismic survey proposals being considered by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management – the lead regulator of oil and gas exploration – ships would tow arrays of seismic airguns, which produce compressed air bubbles under extreme pressure to create sound. Hydrophones towed near the surface record sound that bounces back from the ocean floor to create a 3-D image of geological formations that hint at oil or gas deposits deep in the seabed.

"There's no need to panic, but if people are allowing seismic testing over munition dumps, nobody can say exactly what's out there, and what is going to be the impact of blasting it," Barton told FLORIDA TODAY. "Nothing good can come of blasting rotten ammunition dumps with seismic cannons."

He recently expressed his concerns in public comments to NOAA.

Barton says U.S. coastal waters of the Atlantic are "home to some of the largest known deposits of sea-dumped chemical weapons in the world."

He continues: "An untold number of Atlantic Coast watermen have already encountered chemical weapons caught in fishing gear, with some of these incidents resulting in casualties associated with dermal exposure to chemical blister agent, despite these materials having been submerged more than half a century," he wrote in his comments to NOAA.

The easiest way to avert their disruption and dispersal of toxic waste is to establish exclusion zones for seismic testing over ammunition dumps, Barton said.

In his comments to NOAA, Barton cites a 2012 incident near Camp Pendleton, in California, when hours after a mother drove home from the coast with beach “rocks” still in her pocket, her pants “caught fire” while standing in her kitchen. Both she and her husband were hospitalized, and their hardwood kitchen floor was damaged.

According to media reports at the time, Camp Pendleton officials said there was no evidence any military materials were involved, despite history of white phosphorous munitions being expended in that immediate area, Barton notes in his comments, and white phosphorous being a man-made compound "produced almost exclusively for military use." officials said there was no evidence any military materials were involved, despite history of white phosphorous munitions being expended in that immediate area, Barton notes in his comments, and white phosphorous being a man-made compound "produced almost exclusively for military use."

"When beachcombers collect and then break through the outer layer of crust covering a loose chunk of chemical blister agent or white phosphorous ammunition filler content, they receive a serious chemical agent burn, or third degree incendiary burn from a substance that ignites on contact with air and burns at 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit," Barton wrote in his comments to NOAA.

The threat to marine life is real, he added. Dolphins root through the sea bed in search of food, "and need only suffer mild chemical agent burn damage to the protective outermost dermal layer of the snout to become terminal victims of viral and bacterial infection, already prevalent in ocean waters," Barton said in his comments.

While no chemical munitions have been associated with the Fort Pierce cleanup, as recently as January, a "Tiny Tim" — a 10-foot-long World War II air-to-ground rocket — turned up at a Vero Beach construction site.

"Items have been found, usually in conjunction with construction," said Susan Burntett, project manager with PIKA-Pirnie Joint Venture LLC, the corps' consultants on the cleanup. "In none of those cases was anyone injured."

But based on risk-based screening levels, antimony, lead and zinc were in some parts of the site identified as of potential ecological concern in the soil. 

Over the years, the corps has conducted several investigations at the site. Bombs and ammo keep turning up. In 1949, local residents found mines along North Huchinson Island beaches. Depth bombs and other munitions have also been found, oftentimes by unsuspecting residents.

The corps completed a site inspection in 2015, and concluded the current investigation is necessary.

Evidence of limited chemical warfare training can be found in historical photos, but not so much in federal reports about the site.

Dry chemical mixes were used to smother incendiary bombs. And Taylor, of FIT, said there was some chemical warfare training there, because the military wanted to devise means to treat uniforms for protection from chemical weapons.

A 2012 corps inventory report found no evidence of chemical weapons use at the Fort Pierce site. But Barton still wonders what seismic airgun testing off Florida and other Atlantic states' waters could do to large piles of munitions on the ocean floor, many of which are in unknown locations, or are uncharted.

"If you have a million tons of ammunition leaching in the same geographic area, there's no doubt it will have an ecological footprint," he said. "The ecological impact is of no concern and is not even recognized by our government."

As far as chemical and other weapons dumped offshore in Florida and up the Atlantic Seaboard: "It's something we're probably never going to know for sure," Taylor, of FIT, said. "The legacies of World War II, in terms of the environment, are still with us and will be with us for a very long time."

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


JOIN THE CONVERSATION

To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment