Thursday, June 17, 2010

Weapons are common catch, fishermen say

Weapons are common catch, fishermen say

By Peter Schworm and Beth Daley
Globe Staff / June 9, 2010

NEW BEDFORD — In a bizarre incident that spotlights the vast amount of chemical weapons and munitions debris littering the ocean floor, a crewman aboard a clamming boat remained hospitalized yesterday for exposure to mustard gas after his vessel dredged up World War I-era munition shells.

Konstantin Burndshov sustained burns and blisters on an arm and leg and was sickened after handling a shell that had been hauled aboard the ESS Pursuit on Sunday in waters off Long Island, New York. The incident probably marks the first civilian exposure to the chemical warfare agent in the United States in decades, said Edward W. Boyer, a medical toxicologist who is leading the team treating Burndshov.

Burndshov, a New Jersey resident, remained hospitalized last night at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, but is expected to make a full recovery, according to Boyer. Three other crew members suffered milder symptoms and were treated in New Bedford and released.

Crew member Kevin O’Sullivan said Burndshov, who was wearing rubber oil skins and rubber gloves, was injured after throwing a bullet-shaped canister overboard, after the crew discovered it among a catch of clams. He said the canister smelled strange.

“It was just a strong chemical odor that didn’t seem right,’’ he said.

For decades, the military used the waters off the United States as a dumping ground for surplus or outdated weapons. With the ocean seemingly bottomless and far from people, it was considered a prudent way to get rid of old bombs and other weapons.

But today, as fishermen chase catches in deeper waters, encounters with the remnants of past wars have become more common, some fishermen say.

Clamming boats are particularly prone to hauling up munitions because their gear stirs up the seabed. Last month, for example, workers sorting clams at a New Bedford plant discovered nearly 200 hand grenades.

The clammers of the ESS Pursuit, which operates out of Atlantic City, were exposed to the mustard gas when canisters appeared on the boat’s conveyor belt. The captain, Kieran Kelly, said in a telephone interview from aboard the vessel that one canister had broken open. Burndshov was exposed, and other crew members experienced breathing difficulties and eye irritation.

The boat brought the sick men in to New Bedford, where the vessel was scheduled to unload its catch, about 24 hours later. Dave Little, 32, a commercial fisherman from New Hampshire, helped unload the boat Monday, and joined the crew as it pushed back out to sea, unaware the boat was contaminated.

About five hours later, when the boat was about 20 miles out, the Coast Guard called it back to port. “If they hadn’t turned us around, we’d still be out there,’’ said Little, who experienced some irritation around his eyes and mouth from the exposure.

The ESS Pursuit remained in isolation yesterday, moored off New Bedford and flanked by Coast Guard vessels as officials developed a decontamination plan. Tests on the boat revealed the presence of blister agents, a group of chemicals that includes mustard gas.

Mustard gas, used infrequently after World War I, was intended to disable enemies because the gas would get on skin and cause large, raised blisters. It was not designed as a killing agent, although it can cause death if inhaled. It is also persistent, remaining in the environment and on surfaces for days.

“That is what is stunning to everyone; it is still potent now,’’ said Boyer, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan is leading the effort to figure out what to do with the boat’s catch of thousands of pounds of clams.

Even though a state hazardous materials unit and bomb squad determined that no mustard gas or chemical agents had seeped into the clams, the state has ordered them destroyed. The catch, 168 containers, each containing 80 bushels of clams, must be disposed of.

Coan said the state has never had to dispose of so much shellfish before. A team will meet this week to develop a plan to do this safely and properly, he said. “The Commonwealth has declared that the catch cannot be sold and will not be sold,’’ Coan said.

Fishermen in New Bedford said they often find discarded munitions at sea, but that they are typically harmless. “It’s pretty routine,’’ O’Sullivan said. “We throw them overboard as quick as possible.’’

Little said old weapons often turn up in the dredge, which digs several inches into the ocean floor. The weapons are shaken violently in the sorting process on board, and Little said he worries some day one will explode.

Massachusetts fishermen and even beachgoers occasionally come across unexploded ordnance on Cape Cod and Island beaches, or near shore areas, because those areas were once used as practice ranges by the military. There are also former dumping grounds off Massachusetts, including a region often called the Foul Area, which had been used to dump radioactive and toxic waste until the 1970s.

“More experienced fishermen know to steer clear of dumping sites where drums of nuclear waste were found, but once in a while people pick up all kinds of crazy things,’’ said Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association.

Most of the dumping took place after World War I, World War II, and from 1950 to 1970, said David Foster, an Army spokesman.

In 1972, Congress prohibited the disposal of chemical munitions at sea, and international treaties soon followed suit.

“The bottom line is the sea disposal of chemical and conventional munitions was an acceptable practice up until 1972,’’ Foster said.

Bill Greene and John M. Guilfoil of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Constance Lindner and Shana Wickett contributed to this report. Beth Daley can be reached at


reprinted with the permission of Beth Daley

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