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Drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is hard enough, but it is now that much harder with the realization there are millions of pounds of unexploded bombs dumped in the waters by the United States government after World War II, said Texas oceanographers.

The U.S., along with other governments, dumped munitions and chemical weapons in oceans from 1946 until the practice ended up banned in the 1970s by U.S. law and international treaty, said William Bryant, a Texas A&M University professor of oceanography. As technological advances allow oil companies to push deeper into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, these forgotten hazards pose a threat as the industry picks up the pace of drilling.

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There is unexploded ordnance in the offshore zone known as Mississippi Canyon where BP drilled the Macondo well. As most know, that is the well BP was drilling when there was a blowout in 2010 that lead to the largest oil spill in U.S. history. There is no connection in this case to any unexploded ordinance having anything to do with the blowout.

In other parts of the Canyon, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is going to auction 38 million acres of oil and gas leases in the central gulf in March.

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The U.S. government designated disposal areas for unexploded ordnance, known as UXO, off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico. But nearly 70 years after creating the areas, no one knows exactly how much ended up dumped, or where the weapons are, or whether they present a danger to humans or marine life.

“These bombs are a threat today and no one knows how to deal with the situation,” said Bryant. “If chemical agents are leaking from some of them, that’s a real problem. If many of them are still capable of exploding, that’s another big problem.” There are disposal zones designated from Florida to Texas, Bryant said.

While the practice of dumping bombs and chemical weapons, including mustard and nerve gas, in the ocean ended 40 years ago some effects are just beginning to be seen, said Terrance Long, founder of the underwater munitions conference. “You can find munitions in basically every ocean around the world, every major sea, lake and river. They are a threat to human health and the environment.”

Last year, BP shut its key Forties crude pipeline in the North Sea for five days while it removed a 13-foot (4-metre) unexploded German mine found resting cozily next to the pipeline that transports up to 40 percent of the UK’s oil production.

BP discovered the mine during a routine pipeline inspection, then spent several months devising a plan to lift the bomb and move it far enough from the pipeline to safely detonate it.

In the Gulf of Mexico, which accounts for 23 percent of U.S. oil production and 7 percent of domestic natural gas output, companies know about the hazards, but generally ignore them.

In 2001, BP and Shell found the wreckage of the U-166, a German World War II submarine, 45 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River during an underwater survey for a pipeline needed to transport natural gas to shore.

Bryant said he and colleague Neil Slowey have documented discarded bombs and leaking barrels over the past 20 years while conducting research for energy companies in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sonar data from a routine seabed survey performed by C&C Technologies identified munitions in about 3,000 feet of water near a proposed project, according to a paper presented at the 2007 Offshore Technology Conference.

After determining the bombs presented a low-to-moderate risk, the project continued as planned.

The oil and gas industry needs to do more address the problem, Long said. “It makes more sense to start dealing with the munitions from a risk-mitigation standpoint to be able to conduct operations in those areas rather than trying to avoid that they are there.”

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