Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Posted on Sun, Nov. 20, 2005
Veteran recounts dumping of radioactive waste off U.S. shore
Newport News (Va.) Daily Press

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - The Army might not know what kind of radioactive waste it dumped with chemical weapons off Virginia in 1960, but Ellis R. Cole is sure it wasn't harmless.

The Geiger counter readings were proof of that.

Cole said he helped winch hundreds of 55-gallon barrels labeled "radioactive" out of a ship and into the ocean.

He was, he said, aboard a small Fort Eustis, Va.-based ship sent that summer to pick up a load of radioactive waste from an Army chemical-weapon development and test base in Maryland and dump it into the Atlantic Ocean.

"It was common knowledge on the ship that we were dealing with something that was very dangerous," said Cole, now 64 and living in Lakeport, Fla. "I've been uneasy about it for a number of years. No one seemed to care at the time, but I felt in my heart we did something absolutely wrong."

Army records show that a shipment of 317 tons of radioactive waste and 3 tons of Lewisite - a blister agent related to mustard gas - was dumped June 14 and 15, 1960, about 90 miles off the Virginia-Maryland line. Cole said it might have been dumped much closer to shore than Army records showed.

Cole came forward after reading a Daily Press investigation revealing that the Army secretly dumped at least 64 million pounds of chemical weapons and 500 tons of unidentified radioactive waste off 11 states from 1945 to 1970, when the practice was halted.

He provided a detailed, credible description of one of many Army dumping operations and offered the Daily Press access to his military record for verification. He also agreed to speak to Army chemical-weapons experts.

Cole said two holds of the ship were filled with barrels of radioactive waste. He said the ends of the barrels were encased in concrete, which had gaps to hook chains connected to a winch that hoisted the barrels out of the hold and over the side.

He said he was 18 at the time and was chosen to be one of the men who went into the holds to hook the barrels onto the winch. The captain issued a "very unusual" order that prohibited anyone from being in the holds for more than two hours at a time, thus limiting radiation exposure, Cole said.

On leaving the holds, the workers were examined with a Geiger counter to determine the degree of radiation on them. "It would beep incessantly," Cole said.

He was then ordered to shower, a common practice for decades to reduce the effects of radiation exposure. The Geiger counter still went wild.

He took eight to 10 showers each time that he left the ship's holds before the Geiger counter didn't detect a dangerous level of radiation, he said. "The more showers I took, the less it beeped until it eventually stopped beeping," Cole said.

He said he didn't remember whether he was required to wear a protective suit when in the holds. And he wonders whether the colon cancer diagnosed last year was caused by radiation exposure decades ago.

Cole described a method of dumping not previously disclosed. Army records don't indicate that the ends of dumped barrels filled with chemical-warfare agents or radioactive waste were encased in concrete. But it's a plausible method to remove barrels from a ship's hold.

Army photographs from the 1940s to the 1960s show forklifts pushing the steel containers and chemical-filled ordnance over the sides of ships. In later years, the Army's preferred disposal method was to scuttle ships packed with chemical weapons.

Records also show that radioactive material in those years frequently was mixed with concrete before being dumped into the ocean.

Army dumping records don't reveal the origin of the radioactive waste jettisoned. But National Archives records show that large quantities of unidentified radioactive material were transported in the 1950s by the Army's chemical-weapons escort service from a nuclear lab at Oak Ridge, Tenn., to Army bases with chemical weapons slated for ocean disposal.

At the time, the thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb was being developed at that lab. Army transportation of potentially highly radioactive waste from the lab is known to have continued until 1960.

The Army wasn't the only entity to dump radioactive waste off the Virginia-Maryland line in 1960.

A 1961 report in the defunct Armed Forces Chemical Journal shows that private industry also dumped at least 8 tons of radioactive waste - some of it highly dangerous nuclear material - in the same location as the Army operation that Cole said he was on. The journal said what was then the Atomic Energy Commission approved the location. (The AEC was superseded in 1975 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.)

Cole told the Daily Press that he was aboard a ship named the Pvt. Carl V. Sheridan, which he described as a 176-foot-long freighter. The Fort Eustis-based ship was ordered to the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to pick up its load of radioactive material.

The name of the ship couldn't be verified. But an archivist at the Army Transportation Museum said ships of that description, designated freight supply vessels, were based at Eustis in the 1960s.

Cole said his ship headed into the Atlantic and north to the Virginia-Maryland line. But the seas were too rough to set up the booms used to lift the heavy barrels from the ship's holds, so the vessel spent the night at Wilmington, Del.

The ship headed south the next day, found the seas still too choppy to dump its cargo, and tied up at a dock at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Va. The captain hung a placard - "radioactive" - on the side of the ship, which Cole said he understood to be standard operating procedure at the time.

The post commander apparently considered the ship too dangerous to have around and ordered it away from the dock.

"They threw us out of port," Cole said. "They made us go out into the (Chesapeake) bay for the night. It was too dangerous for the Army brass at Fort Monroe."

The next morning, the ship headed into the Atlantic and steamed north for what the crew estimated to be 60 to 70 miles before dumping its load, Cole said.

Army records show that the radioactive waste was dumped about 110 miles north of the fort and 90 miles from shore. If so, either Cole's memory is inaccurate or the Army's records are mistaken and the dumping was much closer to shore than recorded.

One thing Cole is clear on: The material that his ship was carrying was dangerously radioactive.

"That's something that's bothered me for the last 45 years," he said. "They told me to do it, and I did it. I always felt we were doing something wrong."
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