December 5, 2017

1970. U.S. Scuttles Cargo Ship Full of Nerve Gas

Controversy Over the SS LeBaron Russell Briggs
"The World War II liberty ship, Lebaron Russell Briggs, takes aboard the last of the 418 gas-filled concrete coffins containing deadly nerve gas," August 14, 1970 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

August 17, 1970

Sometime tomorrow the stripped-down old Liberty ship, LeBaron Russell Briggs, will be towed to the Atlantic target area some 280 miles off Cape Kennedy. A skeleton crew of Navy men will open her petcocks, take the pair of laboratory rabbits, and abandon ship.

Then some four or five hours later the rusting old World War II hulk will sink into the 16,000 foot deep ocean valley called the Blake-Bahama Basin, hopefully disposing of the 418 steel and concrete coffins in which are embedded twelve and a half thousand rockets containing GB nerve gas, plus one land mine containing a more deadly VX gas whose contents are still top secret.

Army scientists speculate that even before the doomed Briggs and her deadly cargo reach the sea floor, the tremendous pressure of the water will rupture both the ship and her cargo; the unstable propellant in the rockets may explode. The Army technicians hope that it happens, thus cracking the confined concrete and allowing the nerve gas to be safely detoxified thousands of feet under the sea.

There's one joker in the Army plan, however, that only recently came to light. Most chemists agree that marine hydrolysis of the GB nerve gas could render it harmless in about five hours. However, the so-called half-life of the VX gas might require as long as ten years. But no one knows for sure.

The Army's embarrassing dilemma has also embarrassed the United States in the eyes of the world, drawing some protests from the Bahamas—only some 160 miles southeast of the dump site—and from Iceland, which is concerned that the Gulf Stream may eventually carry the stuff to its shores. UN Secretary U Thant also expressed displeasure. And even the federal courts had to bow to the Army argument of "where else" in rejecting last-minute legal efforts to stop the sea dumping.

This distressing nerve gas incident involves much more than a military snafu even though Defense Secretary Laird has pledged it will never happen again. For centuries, other nations have used the oceans for a military garbage pit, and under the doctrine of national and international waters no one has the right to stop it.

Explorer Thor Heyerdahl reported on his recent papyrus boat trip across the Atlantic that even the central areas of that mighty ocean were so polluted that some days his crew could not swim or wash their clothing in it.

Since 7/8ths of the earth's surface is covered with water, not only the world's navies and merchant marines are going to have to alter their thinking about the seven seas, but you and I—everyone. The anthropologists say all life originated in the oceans. It also could end there.

The ocean's floor has been called the last and biggest frontier left on earth, and the maritime powers have become increasingly interested in exploiting the vast underwater resources around the globe. Except for the often-disputed sovereignty of the continental shelves, the millions of square miles of sea-bottom is a no-man's-land, but it should not be just up for grabs. Future exploitation must consider the ecology of the oceans, too.