A Congressional committee will investigate charges by a retired Navy pilot that he dumped canisters of nuclear wastes into the Atlantic Ocean -- sometimes due east of Maryland's coastline -- after the end of World War II.
George Earle IV, 64, now a resident of Reading Vt., broke a 33-year silence on the nature of his missions in October, 1947, after he got what he said was a runaround from the Navy and other federal agencies on details of his secret missions.
Rep. Anthony (Toby) Moffett (D-Conn.), chairman of the House Government Operations' subcommittee on energy and the environment, said Earles revelations add "a new phase" to an ongoing investigation of potential harmful effects of nuclear waste dumping.
The Navy denied knowledge of the missions described by Earle, who said he flew a borrowed Army B-17 from Mustin Field in Philadelphia to the dumping site, about 100 miles southsoutheast of Atlantic City, N.J. During three flights, Earle said his crew pitched four to eight canisters, about the size of beer barrels, into the Atlantic.
Earle said yesterday that he was never told what was in the canisters.
"But they were swarming all over us with geiger counters before and after the flights," he said. "They didn't need to tell us what we were carrying. It was obvious."
While the Navy has not acknowledged the missions, Earle said he has been contacted by officials of both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency, who have confirmed that such dumping occurred on numerous missions, off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. One official told him about 34,000 barrels of nuclear waste were dumped off the mid-Atlantic coast up to 1969.
The United States suspended offshore dumping of nuclear waste in 1970, but others countries, including Great Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium, still dump radioactive material offshore. Records at EPA, including those of the defunct Atomic Energy Commission, indicated that radioactive wastes, encased in 55-gallon drums lined with concrete, were dumped at two sites in the Atlantic, off the New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland coasts.
Another 52,000 barrels were dumped off the Pacific, some within 50 miles of San Francisco, according to the EPA.
A spokesman for Moffett said the investigation of Earle's charges dovetail with an investigation begun last summer by Rep. John Burton (D-Calif.) about dumping near the Farallon Islands off San Francisco.
"We're not trumpeting this disclosure as an imminent hazard," a Moffett aide said, "but it certainly is worth further investigation."
Earle was somewhat surprised by the reaction to his story, especially after years of failing to get any attention from federal agencies. He said recent news accounts about nuclear dumping off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. prompted him to renew his quest for disclosure of his "very hush-hush" postwar flights.
"I'm not looking for publicity," Earle said in a telephone interview yesterday. "I hate Washington and New York, and have no desire to come down there to testify. It's 20-below zero up here, with lots of snow, and a big fire, and I love it. I told that man from Congressman Moffett's office that I hoped they could look into this without me making a personal appearance.
Although there is no indication that the waste dumped by Earle has leaked, EPA scientists began reporting in 1975 that traces of radioactive cesium were leaking from containers 120 miles east of Ocean City, Md. The EPA reported that no significant levels of contamination could be detected among marine life in that area, but said two fish caught well off the shore had significant levels of radioactive americium.