Thursday, February 02, 2006

Self-Inflicted Wounds

The official talking points on the chemical weapons dumped off the coast of Hawai'i continue to be misleading:

The Army still has not determined the location of most of the more than 8,000 tons of chemical munitions dumped off O'ahu at the end of World War II, but says that if their containers fail, most of the chemicals would break down into nontoxic compounds.
That's true, of course. It's also true that if you released nerve gas into a shopping mall, it'd break down into nontoxic compounds. What's of interest is what happens in between release and breakdown.

Nerve agent is viable in water for about six weeks. In some circumstances, mustard gas can remain viable for at least five years. Cyanide agents break down very quickly, but are roughly a thousand times more toxic to fish than to humans (whence the utterly grotesque practice of cyanide fishing); coral reefs are even more susceptible. Lewisite, however, is probably the most serious long-term problem.

This top-linked article gives us a partial inventory of the dumped weapons:
Pearl Harbor: 4,220 tons of hydrogen cyanide

O'ahu: 16,000 100-pound mustard bombs

Wai'anae: Seven tons of 1,000-pound hydrogen cyanide bombs; 461 tons of 1,000-pound cyanogen chloride bombs; 28 tons of 500-pound cyanogen chloride bombs; 800 tons of 114-pound mustard bombs; 510 tons of 4.2-inch mustard mortar shells, 1,817 tons of one-ton mustard containers; and 300 tons of one-ton lewisite containers.
That represents roughly a quarter of the 64,000,000 pounds of nerve and mustard agents currently thought to have been dumped in 26 sites off 11 states (for purposes of comparison, Saddam was alleged to have about 500 tons of chemical weapons).

The failure rate of different types of containers varies greatly depending on depth, temperature, current, and contents. But as time passes, the likelihood of their failure increases; the fact that the contents of an individual canister will eventually break down is cold comfort. The fact is, these munitions will remain dangerous for generations, and cleaning them up is going to cost taxpayers a fortune.

Looking at this monument to paranoia and profiteering, one can't help wondering what further wounds we'll inflict on ourselves in the name of the "Global War on Terror."


juniper pearl said...

if things like this were the result of ignorance, i'd be plenty angry; but of course the driving force is actually indifference, and that's more heartbreaking than infuriating. you can educate people if they're behaving as they are because they don't understand the consequences, but you can't teach anyone to care about consequences that they're already fully aware of. it seems a lot of high-ups in the military just don't have it in them to give a rat's ass.

Phila said...


Well, I think some of it was ignorance, initially. The problem is, no one ever learns anything from it. Our "experts" can do incredibly stupid things, use the complexity and cost of the problems they cause as an excuse for not doing anything about them, and somehow - miraculously - come out with their basic authority intact, so that when another harebrained idea is proposed, they get the benefit of the doubt.

I guess I'm the opposite...I think ignorance is tragic, and bland indifference is demonic. But I do see your point about the difference between people you can educate and people you can't.

Oddly enough, IIRC, the US Air Force is currently the world's largest consumer of renewable energy. Which is great, until you consider what they're using it for. (I made a joke about this here, but it wasn't really very funny.)