Clam Fisherman Dredges Up Chemical Weapons

One-ton mustard gas canisters going over the side, 1964 (U.S. Army photo)

By The Maritime Executive 08-12-2016 08:40:20

Early this month, off the coast of New Jersey, the crew of the clam fishing boat William Lee brought aboard a catch they didn't want – discarded military ordnance, likely mustard gas dating back to a 1960s Army disposal program.

The men threw it back overboard, but not before one of them received second-degree burns. He was taken to a Philadelphia hospital for treatment. 

Authorities didn't find out about the incident until a week afterwards, and they immediately impounded the boat to check for signs of contamination. They found none, but they still had to find and dispose of all of the vessel's catch from the day of the incident. The clams had gone to a processor in Delaware, and the company agreed to "voluntarily destroy the entire product lot," said Lauren Sucher, an FDA spokeswoman, speaking to the AP. 

Mustard gas, a blister agent dating to World War I, can cause skin burns and respiratory damage, with signs appearing after as much as a 24 hour delay, according to the CDC. This is not the first case of burns from munitions recovered from waters off New Jersey, where the Army disposed of thousands of tons of mustard gas in the 1960s, in addition to other chemical weapons.

In 2010, a crew member was burned on another clam boat, and two more on a third vessel off Long Island. In 2005, bomb disposal techs were called in to handle a munition found in a pile of crushed clamshells in Delaware and found that it was filled with what appeared to be black tar. Three were injured, one with severe burns on his arm; the clamshells originated from a fishing boat off New Jersey, and the munition's contents were confirmed to be mustard gas.