20th SUPCOM interview: munition found at Delaware clam plant
On the 29th of June, 2012, 20th Support Command were called out to a clam processing plant - Sea Watch International of Milford, Delaware - where a munition carrying a suspected blister agent had been found amidst the day's catch.
The initial assessment was made by the US Air Force EOD unit and the 20th Support Command were called in when tests revealed the possibility of blister agent contamination. The operation was not straightforward by any means, particularly because the munition was leaking. True to form however, the 20thSUPCOM units assessed, packaged and transported what was a pretty gnarled and rusty item safely to Dover Air Base.
Jesse Garrick, sub-editor for CBRNe World, spoke to Bob Maddox, UXO manager for the CBRNE Analytical and Remediation Activity; Steven Cotrill, Physical Science Tech (Munitions), Mobile Munitions Assessment Systems Operator, CARA; Ryan O’Connell, Supervisory Chemical Engineering Tech, CARA; and Chris Bush, Public Affairs Specialist of the Command.
An select copy of the transcript is below.
10/07/2012 09:30 EDT
JG: Perhaps we could start be giving our readers an outline of the Milford operation?
BM: Last week, Air Force EOD responded to Sea Watch International in Milford, as part of a conventional EOD response. Since 2004, by way of 18 responses,14 munitions have been found there that contain recovered chemical warfare agents. Upon this assesment they had found one suspect chemical munition that was recovered from a clam-harvesting operation.
JG: So as a result of sea-dredging?
BM: Correct. After the conventional response, the 20th Support Command was requested to provide support. Using M8 paper, which is a chemical detection paper, an indication was given of a blister agent, which because of other incidents at Sea Watch International, indicated a need for our response at that location.
JG: Was there any confusion about the specific agent you were dealing with, and what tools did you need to make an indentification?
BM: We always try to prove the negative. Because we had an indication of blister agent on the M8 paper, and because it was a 77mm/76mm projectile identified by Air Force EOD, we provided a complete assessment. We call this a material assessment review, which consists of digital radiography and commuted tomography x-ray systems. We use high-powered, continuous-beam x-rays which gives us better penetration and priority of xray to determine liquid lines. We also used the portable isotopic neutron spectroscopy (PINS).
(There is a brief explanation about how pins works on the CMA non-stockpile website)
JG: What is protocol for background assessment?
BM: There's a background sheet material assessment review board sheet that is done on who is doing the x-ray, the sizes of the x-rays, who is doing PINS, etc. All that information is sent by satellite, which is on the mobile munitions assessment system platform, back to the office and is reviewed by the material assessment review board (10 members) consisting of non-stockpile, the commander from the 22nd Chemical Battalion (chair), 3 EOD/ UXO personnel, a person from the chemical treaty and a person from the CMA historical office.
JG: Did the Milford operation provide a good platform for civil and military co-operation?
BM: Well, all of the above are military but there were other entities from the civil side on site such as environmental health.
JG: What was particularly unique about the operation?
BM: Of the 14 munitions that have been found at Sea Watch International, this is the first one that was leaking. It did provide a little bit more of a task to ensure that there was no spread of contamination, that the area was fully decontaminated, and that the item was assesed correctly, packaged and then transported to Dover Air Force Base for further assesment. That was all performed under the interim guidance for recovered chemical warfare materials. That allows the EOD team and our team to do what is required, i.e., package and transport to the closest military operation where a full assessment can be done safely.
JG: Are there any discernible advantages to having the combination of EOD and CBRN assets within 20th Support Command?
RO: Yes I think there definitely are, if you're talking about all the skill-set that is contained within the CBRNE command. We're talking about an extroadinary amount of brain power. Particulary within CARA, there is a massive amount of experience and when it comes together it really is an extraordinary unit. Every unit is unique but, not to sound too Orwellian, our units are more unique than others!
JG: Absolutely. And to what extent are operations such as this necessary to remind others of the vital skill-set that the 20th Support Command has within its units? I'm thinking, particularly in these tough economic times, when budget cuts are being made continuously. Does the headline 'None hurt in Delaware Incident' provide some important and impressive exposure for you? Is that something that crosses your mind at times like this?
RO: Well, regardless of whatever austerity measures are taken we stand ready to answer all the time. When you talk about budgets and things like that, you're referring to policy-makers and we're really just instruments of that. So at this present time, the budgetary questions that you're asking really didn't come into play. We are contacted and we just carry out the mission. And we will continue to stand ready to do that.
JG: Still, on reflection and after the mission is complete, do you feel that these assessments reinforce the importance of the 20th Support Command?
RO: Well, you know, my own inflated ego aside, I think any time we leave our house we stress how important we are! And whether it's the day-to-day operations that our guys are called on throughout the US, or if it our technical escort units, we prove our necessity to the country and to the security of our nation.
JG: Is the issue of sea-dredging and fishing becoming an increasing concern? And is the Milford operation likely to happen again do you think, perhaps elsewhere in the country?
CB: I learnt long ago to not speculate on things like that. We just make sure that when we are called we are ready. When you talk about dredging, you're talking about folks that are a lot smarter than I am! We will simply do everything we can when we are called on.
JG: And does the fact that the munitions have been under water for such a long time make identification a lot harder?
CB: In some cases it does make it harder yes. The under water sea life will attach to the munition and we gave a measurement earlier of 75/76mm because of the degree of rust and growth in places. Interestingly, a lot of the munitions from deeper parts of the water are actually preserved. I know that non-stockpile have done some research and are looking to do more to determine what effects seawater has on these lost munitions.
The 20th SUPCOM website can be found here.