World War II munitions under cruise ship terminal top Coast Guard priority



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Posted on October 28, 2010 at 5:26 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 28 at 10:25 PM

SEATTLE - The Coast Guard tells the KING 5 Investigators the discovery of old military munitions underneath Seattle's Smith Cove Cruise Terminal is a top priority.

Coast Guard Lieutenant Jennifer Osburn has seen some of what's been brought up from the waters around Pier 91, the cornerstone of Seattle's multi-million dollar cruise ship industry. 

But it's what she and others involved in the operation don't know that's driving the effort to fix the problem as soon as possible.

"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.

The Port of Seattle Police Dive Team made the first discovery. They found harmless, World War II-era empty shell casings.  But last month, things got much more serious when objects turned up on four different days.  Shell casings, training rounds and projectiles ranging from 20-millimeter to 90-millimeter rounds.  And some had "live rounds containing H-E (high explosive) material".

"They weren't finding things every dive, so it wasn't a huge concern in the beginning. It became a big concern in September when it was happening more frequently,” said Jim Barton, a world-renowned expert in underwater munitions.

Smith Cove was a Navy supply center from World War II to 1971. Before the Port of Seattle turned it into a cruise ship terminal, the military studied old records to see what the Navy had been up to.

The conclusion?  No ammunitions were handled here.  Now, we know that wasn't right.

Barton says during the world wars, it was common for munitions to be accidentally dropped off piers.

"To say, we didn't know munitions were handled at this pier, I got news for you. Any military pier can be expected to have handled munitions.Any pier,” said Barton.

Without exact research, he says anything could be below.

“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 our inventory could be at the bottom of that pier,” said Barton.

The Army, Coast Guard, Navy and the Port of Seattle are under the gun to do a full study and a removal, if necessary, within six months.

In April, the cruise ships come back.  Nearly 200 sailings are scheduled at Smith Cove next year.

The human traffic and the energy those massive ships create are enough to potentially move ammunition around.That scenario makes this underwater ammunition site unique.

"The unusual factor is that there's cruise ship parked on top of this material you won't find anywhere else in the country,” said Barton.