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Ordnance Reef Survey Questions and Answers

What is this “Ordnance Reef” and survey?

Ordnance Reef is a local name for an area near Wai’anae, Oahu, Hawaii.  The area is off Pokai Bay, and near the Wai’anae sewage treatment plant outfall.

In 2006, the Department of Defense (DoD) requested NOAA conduct a screening level scientific assessment of the area.  NOAA, with assistance from the University of Hawaii (UH) and Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), was asked to: (1) determine the boundaries of the disposal area; (2) compare the ecology of the survey area with that of a control area; (3) determine the quantity and location of munitions, and obtain data for DoD’s use in identifying the munitions; (4) sample sediments, the water column, and fish tissue; and (5) collect data to support a risk evaluation by DoD. 

What is NOAA?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a federal agency that conducts scientific research and gathers data about the oceans and atmosphere.  NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment and conserve and manage coastal and marine resources to meet our nation’s economic, social and environmental needs.  An agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA is well-known and regarded for gathering and providing high-quality scientific information about the nation’s ocean and coastal waters.

What was NOAA’s role in the survey?

NOAA, under a Special Studies Agreement with the Army and Navy, was responsible for the overall coordination and conduct of the Ordnance Reef Survey.  NOAA offices involved in the survey include: NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program, NOAA Office of Coast Survey, NOAA Office of Response and Restoration, NOAA Special Projects Office, and NOAA Fisheries Service (Pacific Region). Teledyne Benthos provided technical support.

What was DLNR’s role in the survey?

DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources provided invaluable local knowledge of marine life and habitats and assisted the project team with the identification and selection of fish species to be collected within the survey area for subsequent analysis.

What was UH’s role in the survey?

UH was responsible for sediment collection and analysis and water sampling within the survey area. Sediment samples were collected by NOAA divers and a remotely operated vehicle.

How was the survey conducted?

The Ordnance Reef Survey project team used the latest remote sensing and environmental sampling techniques and technologies to conduct the assessment, including high resolution seafloor scanners and a remotely operated vehicle. 

Fish, sediment, and water samples collected from Ordnance Reef, the outfall area and a control area were sent to two independent laboratories and the University of Hawaii for testing.

What are the results of the survey?

The Ordnance Reef Survey verified the presence of munitions ranging from small arms projectiles up to large-caliber artillery projectiles and naval gun ammunition.  Military munitions were found at depths ranging from 24 feet to the maximum depth of the study area (300 feet.) 

Coral growth on on and around munitions clusters prevented positive identification of some items.  However, the DoD was able to determine that the munitions present at Ordnance Reef were discarded military munitions (sea disposed), not unexploded ordnance (UXO).  This is important, because the explosive hazard of UXO, which are military munitions that have been prepared for use, is considered higher than that associated with discarded military munitions, which are normally not fused and have not been through the arming sequence.

Scientists did not detect the presence of the explosives cyclonite (RDX), trinitrotoluene (TNT), or tetryl during the sampling effort.  A related munitions compound, dinitrotoluene (DNT), was detected in four sediment samples (three near munitions, one not associated with munitions).  No explosives or related compounds were detected in the fish samples taken during the survey.  With the exception of copper, metal levels in sediment samples from the study area were low overall.

Does the report make recommendations about what to do with the munitions?

No, this is not NOAA's area of expertise.  The report will, however, help DoD identify the type and quantity of munitions present and assist it in evaluating the potential safety and environmental risks associated with the presence of munitions, and work with state and federal regulatory agencies and affected stakeholders to determine response actions that may be required.

What happens now?

DoD will use the report as the basis for an evaluation of the potential safety and environmental risks associated with the presence of munitions, and to determine, with state and federal regulatory agencies and affected stakeholders, the required response.

Has NOAA done surveys like this before?

NOAA personnel and assets are on the water every day, exploring ocean habitats, studying marine resources, and charting our oceans and coasts.  NOAA monitors ocean health, predicts tides and currents, and investigates shipwrecks and other submerged objects. NOAA helped locate the wreckage of TWA 800 and identified submerged obstructions to navigation resulting from Hurricane Katrina. 

Are there other munitions disposal sites in Hawaii and elsewhere in U.S. Waters?

The DoD has identified a number of munitions disposal sites along the Atlantic, Gulf, Pacific, and Alaskan coasts along with the area around Hawaii. 

NOAA nautical charts indicate the location of potential underwater hazards.  Nautical charts include sites reported to have been used by DoD for disposal of military munitions.  NOAA nautical charts are available free of charge on NOAA’s Web site, www.noaa.gov.

Will NOAA update its charts with whatever is learned about the Ordnance Reef site?

NOAA will, as necessary, update its nautical charts of the area to provide mariners with the best information available about this munitions disposal site. 

Is it safe to swim or boat in the area?

Although any munition encountered should not be moved or disturbed, DoD has indicated that if you follow the 3Rs (Recognize, Retreat, Report)--recognize the danger (do not touch it), retreat (note or mark the general area and carefully move away), and report (call 911)--the munitions associated with Ordnance Reef should not present an immediate threat to swimmers and boaters. To learn more, visit the U.S. Army's Unexploded Ordnance Safety Education Program's Web site, www.denix.osd.mil/UXOSafety.

Will NOAA be involved in future underwater ordnance disposal site surveys?

NOAA is constantly working in partnership with oceanographic research institutions, universities and federal, state, and local agencies to expand our knowledge of the dynamic and ever-changing ocean environment.  NOAA will continue to support DoD’s efforts to study munitions disposal sites as requested.

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