Military ammunition discovered under Seattle cruise ship terminal



Posted on October 27, 2010 at 11:01 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 28 at 5:26 PM

SEATTLE -- The KING 5 Investigators have uncovered a multi-agency operation involving an unusual and potentially dangerous finding in the waters of Elliott Bay. Police and military divers have discovered World War II-era and possibly even older ammunition underneath the new high-traffic cruise ship terminal in Seattle.

There's no evidence of any imminent danger to the community with the discovery of the old ammunition. However, the ammo brought to the surface did contain explosives and no one knows for sure what’s still down there.

The Port of Seattle Police Dive Team was the first to make the discovery in April, right before the cruise ship season started.

They were conducting routine homeland security sweeps under and around Pier 91. That's where the new Smith Cove Cruise Terminal is located in the Ballard-Magnolia area.

The divers found empty World War II shell casings which are considered harmless. They made a similar finding in May.

We found things got far more serious in September. Divers made four different discoveries.

Sources tell us that besides the empty shell casings, divers brought up training rounds and projectiles ranging from 20 millimeter to 90 millimeter rounds. Most of what they found did not contain explosives. But according to records we've obtained, at least a few of those retrieved in September have been "live rounds containing h-e (high explosives) material."

"It absolutely needs to come out. There's no excuse to leave it there. It's unwise to leave it there,” said Jim Barton.

Barton is a world-renowned expert in underwater munitions. KING 5 flew him in from Virginia to review our findings. He says it's unlikely something would go wrong, but there is a risk. 

“It's dangerous. Its explosives, its munitions. They're designed to kill people and they're pretty much safe to be around if you don't disturb them,” said Barton.

How did it get there?

The ammunition is likely there because Pier 91 served as a navy supply depot from World War II to 1971. Warships including the USS Missouri and military transport vessels came and went for years.  It was common during the war for ammunition to be accidentally dropped into the water at military installations like this one.

"Wherever munitions have been handled in the past, they have rolled off the pier, they've been dropped out of cargo net. It's perfectly normal, it's expected. What is unexpected is that there is a cruise ship terminal built directly above where some of these munitions are,” said Barton.

Fast forward thirty years. Powerful cruise ships began using the piers in the same area with enough force to unearth what was hidden below. The ships use propellers called bow thrusters which create a powerful wake while maneuvering the ship into port.

“It can actually move loose munitions around, which is not a good idea,” said Barton.

When the munitions were first discovered, the year's record-breaking cruise ship season was still in full swing.

KING 5 has obtained records showing that on at least two occasions in September, live munitions were brought to the surface when a cruise ship was docked above. One was Holland America Line’s ms Zaandam and the other ms Volendam.

In fact, five ships came and went at Pier 91 during the last two weeks of the cruise ship season after the discovery of explosive materials.

The Port of Seattle, which owns Pier 91, tells us they didn't shut down any operations because the Coast Guard and Navy deemed it safe.

Jim Barton believes it wasn't safe enough. 

"Any kind of heat, shock and friction can cause these things to detonate. Now if left undisturbed, they might sit down there for another hundred years and never ever have an incident, but you're adding a new dynamic when you bring in a cruise ship,” said Barton.

What’s happening now?

We’ve learned that just last week the Pentagon officially deemed the waters around Pier 91 a site the army must fully survey and possibly clean up. The Port of Seattle, the Navy, the Army and the Coast Guard are all involved with mapping out a plan which they call a top priority.

They’re working fast because, if a clean-up is necessary, they want it done before the cruise ship season starts again in April.

We asked the four cruise lines that use the Smith Cove terminal about their reaction to our findings. No one would comment.