Weapons dump teams ignored official sea site

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Environment Correspondent

Large quantities of shells, bombs and rockets were sunk in shallow waters near to the Scottish coastline instead of in a much deeper, officially designated dump site, the Government admitted yesterday.

Ministers also conceded that the construction of a gas pipeline between Scotland and Northern Ireland was probably responsible for thousands of phosphorous cylinders and other quantities of the munitions, dumped between the 1920s and 1976, being washed up on the coastline of south-west Scotland last year.

The Government believes there is little that can be done about the dumped explosives apart from altering marine charts to show a larger danger area. But Labour MPs and environmental organisations say much more underwater survey work is needed into the hazard.

A four-year-old boy was badly burnt on the hand when he picked up one of the canisters, the only casualty so far. The devices, including 30lb wartime incendiary bombs, came ashore in their greatest numbers last October during the two-month period in which the 26-mile pipeline was being laid in a seabed trench.

At one point, construction work was stopped because of worries about hitting munitions. The British Geological Survey also picked up seismic traces which it believes could be underwater explosions from the area.

All the munitions should have been dropped in the official Beaufort Dyke dump site, a 30-mile underwater valley where the sea is more than 700ft deep. The Ministry of Defence estimates some 1.7 million tonnes were sunk but admits that records were vague. The disposals reached their height in the decade after the Second World War.

However, trawlers have often brought up munitions from outside the zone while sailors on the dump ships have told of cargoes being dropped off early in bad weather.

For 10 days in November last year the Scottish Office research vessel Clupea carried out extensive survey work in the area, using sonar and underwater video cameras. The scientists found hundreds of racks and crates of munitions on the seabed, north of the official dump site in the area crossed by the pipeline. The results of the study were announced yesterday.

The Scottish Office environment minister Lord Lindsay said: "The analysis from our scientists continues to be that [the munitions] are best left where they are and attempts to move them would pose unacceptable risks . . . they are not posing a risk where they are." The phosphorus cylinders are inert in water but begin to burn when exposed to air.

David Clark, Labour's defence spokesman, said: "After a year of trying to sweep this issue under the carpet the Government should have learnt that complacency and half measures are not the solution." He called for a full inquiry. Friends of the Earth Scotland welcomed the survey, but called for more work before the public could be reassured. "The Ministry of Defence has got a lot of explaining to do," said Dr Richard Dixon, its head of research.

Lord Lindsay would not guarantee any future surveys. There was no proof that the pipeline construction had dislodged the munitions but acknowledged "there could be a link between the two".

The Scottish Office scientific survey found no evidence that fish and other marine life had been heavily contaminated by the munitions. The underwater video footage showed the seabed to have plenty of life.

British Gas said all the construction work had been done in ''strict accordance with procedures agreed with the Department of Trade and Industry, the Health and Safety Executive and the Ministry of Defence".

A spokesman insisted that the line of the pipeline ran outside the dump site, but maps issued by the Government yesterdayshowed the pipeline touching a corner of the area.