Photos reveal old military munitions buried below Elliott Bay

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on October 28, 2010 at 10:24 PM

Updated Tuesday, Oct 29 at 9:07 PM

SEATTLE -- The KING 5 Investigators have obtained the first images the public has seen of what divers brought up last month from the bottom of Elliott Bay near the new Smith Cove Cruise Terminal in Magnolia.

A few visual examples of the load the Navy is now storing on Whidbey Island: corroded empty shell casings; a World War II-era projectile nose; deteriorating rounds of ammunition; and the biggest piece of unexploded ammunition the Port of Seattle Dive Team has found so far.

An expert in the field says the badly decaying projectile - possibly a 90 millimeter round - looks to be even older, most likely from World War I.

"I'm sure they were surprised when they identified something,” said Port of Seattle Police Chief Colleen Wilson.  She says the discoveries were a first for her dive team of five.

While looking for items of sabotage during routine anti-terrorism sweeps around the cruise ships and piers, they came across both harmless munitions and live projectiles filled with high explosive material.

The chief is confident the water and people around it are safe.

"We believe the situation is safe and we have all along. I would not hesitate to be clear if the public would be in danger and that hasn't been the case,” said Chief Wilson.

Everyone agrees the likelihood of a detonation is small but no comprehensive survey has been done. There are lots of unknowns.

"It is our top priority,” said Coast Guard Lieutenant Jennifer Osburn.

The Coast Guard is taking the findings seriously.

"We don't know what's down there, and I think the fear is of the unknown. We don't want to take any chances. While it is deemed very, very little chance of anything happening, what you don't know could hurt you,” said Lt. Osburn.

Here's why there's so much mystery. Smith Cove was a Navy supply center from World War II to 1971. Before the Port of Seattle turned it into the cornerstone of the city's cruise ship industry last year, research was done on what the Navy handled at the pier.  Ammunition was ruled out.

The new discoveries on four different days in September show that wasn't right.

"There might not be an imminent danger, but there's still a hazard that needs to be dealt with,” said Jim Barton, an acclaimed underwater munitions expert. He says a lack of solid historical research means anything could be sitting down there. 

"So that opens up a big question mark. If you weren't able to determine that munitions were handled in the first place, then basically anything in the inventory could be at the bottom of that pier,” said Barton.

The Pentagon has assigned the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a full survey and potential clean-up operation. And there's not much time. In April the cruise season begins again, bringing with it powerful ships that have the ability to loosen underwater munitions.

Those familiar with underwater munitions clean-up efforts say they rarely see the Army able to move quickly. But because of the unique situation those involved hope the site rises to the top of the list.

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