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Opinion: Ticking Time Bombs

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As the newsmakers hopscotch from disaster to disaster to keep the headlines fresh, they draw attention away from ongoing disasters. Since the media turned their cameras away from the BP oil spill, the public also turned away. You’ll recall that BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers and gushing 206 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Last September of 2012, laboratory tests confirmed that oil was still leaking from the Macondo well beneath the Deepwater Horizon. BP claimed it plugged the leak on October 23, but slicks and sheens still glaze the glassy sea surface, some stretching four miles long.

On December 13, 2012, CBS News published a report revealing that BP is launching a subsea investigation of mysterious leaks around its Deepwater Horizon rig. So far, BP has been tight-lipped and uncooperative with investigative authorities. One congressional investigator, Rep. Ed Markey, suspects BP is withholding information. He said, “My concern is that substantial amounts of oil could still be leaking from the wreckage.”

Lesser known is the fact that scattered around the Gulf’s offshore oil rigs are military munitions known as ‘unexploded ordnances’ (UXO). Rigs such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon are anchored into an underwater minefield. William Bryant, an oceanographer at Texas A&M, said, “My first thought when I saw the news reports of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf two years ago were, ‘Oh my gosh, I wonder if some of the bombs down there are to blame.’”

The U.S. government dumped at least 31 million pounds of unexploded bombs in the Gulf of Mexico after World War II. According to Bryant, “No one seems to know where all of them are and what condition they are in today,” adding that, “no one knows how to deal with the situation.” Oceanographers warn that these munitions pose a significant risk to offshore drilling. Nevertheless, President Obama has directed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to auction off 38 million acres of oil and gas leases in the Gulf on March 20, 2013.

Bryant’s worry was warranted given that, in 2011, BP temporarily disabled a major pipeline in the North Sea to remove a German mine that was nestled aside the pipeline, which transports over one-third of the UK’s oil.

Terrance Long, founder of the underwater munitions conference, said, “You can find munitions in basically every ocean around the world, every major sea, lake and river.” All totaled, about 200 million pounds of unexploded ordnance are quietly nesting upon the ocean floor – everything from missiles to chemical weapons. For example, Louisiana trawl fishers have netted hissing corroded canisters that are likely leaking mustard gas. This is no surprise, since the U.S. dumped 32,000 tons of nerve agents into the oceans after WWII. Because of lax recordkeeping, the locations of dump sites remain largely unknown.

Alhough countless UXO lurk underwater, even more UXO litter the landscape. Last summer, a 550-pound U.S. bomb from WWII was unearthed in Munich during a construction project. Such discoveries are common, occurring nearly every week. In this case, because the fuse was rusted, and because the slightest bump could trigger an explosion, the bomb had to be detonated in place. A spokesman from the Munich Fire Department noted the urgency, stating, “The fact is, it could explode any time.” Accordingly, 2,500 people were evacuated immediately.

Munich officials estimate that over 2,000 bombs are still buried beneath the city. A former bomb-disposal chief told Der Speigel that “unexploded bombs are becoming more dangerous by the day through material fatigue as a result of aging and through erosion of safety elements in the trigger mechanisms.” One week later, a 1.5 ton Nazi bomb was discovered in Warsaw, forcing 3,000 people to evacuate the city center.

The U.S. invasion of Vietnam left about 800,000 tons of UXO scattered throughout its paddies and jungles. According to the Vietnam Ministry of Labor, more than 104,000 civilian casualties have resulted from contact with UXO since the U.S. left. The Vietnamese defense ministry estimates that 75% of UXO remain hidden amidst the countryside.

The most prevalent UXO are submunitions from cluster bombs, which can contain hundreds of bomblets. The U.S. dropped 1.5 million cluster bombs packed with 750 million bomblets on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1961 and 1975. About one-fourth of the bombs didn’t explode on impact, and about one-half of the bomblets within them detonate when disturbed. According to Handicap International, there are over 13,000 registered bomblet victims, and 98% of them are civilian.

Shocking as that figure is, it’s well below the 20,000 annual casualties resulting from unexploded landmines, earning them the name “weapons of mass destruction in slow motion.”  The majority of landmine victims are women and children who work in agrarian communities, which were deliberately riddled with landmines to kill farmers and thus starve the population. As the heroic war surgeon Gino Strada noted, “Land mines do not distinguish the foot of a combatant from that of a playing child. Land mines do not recognize cease-fires or peace agreements.”

An estimated 60 to 110 million landmines are still buried across the globe. According to U.N. figures, it would take 1,100 years and $33 billion to clear all unexploded landmines that pepper the landscape, assuming that no additional landmines are used, and assuming they can detect the unmapped landmines that were showered at random from military aircraft.

The body counts from the many wars of last century are not conclusive, but ongoing. You could still be a victim of WWII. Nevertheless, the current President of the United States – a Nobel Peace Prize laureate – refuses to sign the Mine Ban Treaty, which bans the use of anti-personnel mines, and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use or stockpiling of cluster bombs.

Shaky offshore oil rigs like BP’s Deepwater Horizon and the landscape of landmines are only two examples of potential disasters that pervade the energy industry and warfare industry. They are merely two tiles in a mosaic that includes earth-shattering fracking wells that inject toxins into the water supply; under-monitored nuclear reactors – some built on shifting fault lines, chemical warfare operations (such as the 19 million gallons of Agent Orange the U.S. sprayed on Vietnam) that saturate the topsoil with dioxins that seep into water tables and cause spikes in cancer rates and birth defects to this day; the 600,000 pounds of depleted uranium dust coating the Middle East since Desert Storm that causes horrid health disorders; lingering residue from weaponized white phosphorous that causes blood poisoning and organ failure; hair-trigger ballistic missiles armed with nuclear payloads and patched into automated launch systems; widespread contamination from radioactive fallout following nuke tests; the vials of weapons-grade anthrax spores stocked in military labs; and vulnerable cyber networks that control the military and energy industry apparatus.

Given this array, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that human civilization is one big, ticking time bomb, and that Prometheus didn’t light the torch of progress, but the fuse of destruction.

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