On Saturday, a team of scientists leave for a seven day project to assess military munitions dumped off Pearl Harbor nearly 70 years ago. The Department of Defense calls the area Hawaii 0-5. It contains both conventional and chemical munitions.
These chemical munitions dumped in the 1940s sit in water 300-600 meters deep and were documented and tested in previous field missions by the University of Hawaii.
On Mar. 29 scientists will return for the fifth and final field mission. Instead of using a submersible, they will conduct tests using the University's ROV or remotely operated vehicle to see how it compares with the submersibles used in the past.
"When it finds something it's interested in, it gets its arms, pulls out the scoop and scoops the sediment and puts it in the basket, said UH-Manoa Senior Research Scientist Margo Edwards.
Once samples are brought up, a team from the Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center takes over. A handheld chemical agent detector and fixed instruments will monitor the ROV, samples and the air for blistering agents like mustard gas.
"Well they take the sample, prepare for analysis, do a wet chemistry extraction and then do the analysis for chemical agents and their degradation products on board the ship," said John Schwarz of the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.
Their lab is outfitted with the equipment needed to do the tests on site.
"We'll work around the clock to keep up with samples on this trip. We'll process over 200 swales, so it will be a 24-hour operation while out at sea," said Schwarz.
The question is not if the munitions are leaking. Researchers discovered that on previous trips.
"We see there is mustard gas at parts per bill level sneaking, leaking into the sediments. But, when we go and collect the animals that live right there, physically in contact with munitions, there's no trace. So, they're not being poisoned," said Edwards. "So the scientific question should we pick up these munitions in 600 meters of water – my opinion is no we shouldn't."
Edwards says Mother Nature is doing a good job at taking apart the munitions in that area piece by piece with minimal effects. The army though has the final say. This particular munitions assessment project has been funded by Hawaii's congressional delegation and the DOD.
UH is partnering with the U.S. Army and others on this final leg.