•  Carrier


Searching for History

A multi-year program examining the impacts of past munitions disposal practices off the coast of Hawaii will dramatically increase the knowledge base of what is happening at historic sea disposal sites across the globe. 



By Sonia Shjegstad, PMP, M.SAME, Geoffrey Carton, M.SAME, and Margo Edwards, Ph.D. 



Off the coast of Hawaii, a multi-year, multi-phase program known as the Hawaii Undersea Military Munitions Assessment (HUMMA) is undertaking the unique challenge of characterizing a historic deep-water military munitions disposal site.

From its start in 2006 through today, HUMMA has faced several unusual chal­lenges, including an extremely large study area that is in perpetual darkness; complex safety and logistical requirements; and scarce information about the site history, leaving few appropriate benchmarks for investigation design and data evaluation.HUMMA diver in the Pacific

Yet a project team comprised of profes­sionals in varying disciplines from across industry, government and academia has successfully overcome these and many other challenges to achieve success.

The team’s achievements across the five phases of project management (concep­tion and initiation, definition and planning, execution, performance and control, and project close) will provide the international community with a framework for investi­gating deep-water conventional and chemi­cal munitions disposal sites worldwide.


Public Law 109-364 § 314, enacted in 2006, requires the Department of Defense (DOD) to determine the potential impact of the ocean environment on sea-disposed munitions and of sea-disposed munitions on the ocean environment and those that use it. This legislation was the basis for HUMMA’s objective: to study sea-disposed chemical munitions in Hawaiian waters.

Funding was made available in the 2007 appropriations bill through the efforts of Hawaii’s Congressional delegation. The program received a high level of manage­ment support and oversight, with ultimate accountability resting within the Army Secretariat responsible for Environment, Safety and Occupational Health.

Early during planning, however, it became clear that the associated risks with underwater munitions investigation had to be identified and closely managed.

One issue was a lack of detailed infor­mation about the investigation area. A single 1944 reference identified the site as being about 5-mi from Pearl Harbor and containing approximately 16,000, 100-lb mustard-bombs. There was a major risk that these chemical munitions—the target of interest—might not be found and the inves­tigation would be limited to conventional munitions. Additionally, water depths in the area range from 800-ft to 2,000-ft. HUMMA would be the most comprehen­sive investigation of sea-disposed chemical munitions at these depths, which meant there were no established methods for find­ing the site, collecting samples, or assessing human health and ecological risks.


It was essential to establish a consortium of cross-discipline experts that could fulfill the program’s many technical objectives. HUMMA’s team included historians, ocean­ographers, geophysicists and geochemists, environmental scientists, safety profession­als and biologists from academia, industry and government. Sophisticated equipment and certified analytical laboratories also were necessary to accomplish technical objectives during short-duration and high-intensity field deployments.

Dealing with the differences in how academia, government and industry were accustomed to working was a key aspect of ensuring the program stayed on track. In academia, it is common to start with a general plan then adapt, in the field, based on near real-time findings. Team members from industry and government were accus­tomed to working in a rigidly regulated environment where detailed plans and data quality objectives development are de rigueur. This created a situation where academics were challenged to work within a regulation-driven environment while industry and government team members needed to incorporate some flexibility to allow for continuous improvement.

From the outset, each team member understood the potential hazards of working in deep water and of exposure to mustard agent. The team worked closely with the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) to outline and implement onboard safety and sample clearance procedures. Samples needed to be screened for chemical agents prior to their release to embarked personnel and commercial laboratories. ECBC established a laboratory onboard the research vessel for conducting fixed-laboratory quality analy­ses of samples within 24 hours of collection.

Early on, the team also realized the study area needed to be narrowed. The University of Hawaii reviewed its video database of prior submersible missions and confirmed that most munitions were exposed on the seafloor. Armed with this information, the team designed a program that began with SONAR mapping to identify targets and ended with sample collection for laboratory analysis. This phased, adaptive approach allowed the team to meet strict quality requirements while enabling researchers to continuously refine their methodology.


With goals established and planning complete, execution began with a series of field tests. A seven-day SONAR survey in 2007 started with collecting medium-resolution data over a 650-km² area to establish topography. This was followed by a second higher resolution (0.25-m) survey of 81-km² to detect the 100-lb mustard bombs. The resulting data was sufficient to select target-rich investigation areas.

A 2009 field program then investigated likely targets using a small remotely oper­ated vehicle and a pair of three-person human occupied vehicles (HOVs). The sampling approach balanced the payloads of the HOVs and bottom time limitations with the need for a robust dataset for draw­ing scientifically sound conclusions. The HOVs used custom-designed containers to collect sediment and seawater samples without exceeding payload limits and then returned to the surface. Shipboard scientists and a land-based support team coordinated to ensure the samples reached mainland laboratories within holding times. During this 2009 field program, HUMMA identi­fied more than 2,500 munitions, sampling near 20 munitions. However, this surveying did not locate 100-lb mustard bombs.

Munitions in the PacificA follow-on 2011 SONAR survey encom­passed a region where commercial groups surveying for a potential underwater util­ity route observed likely 100-lb mustard bombs. Modifications made between the 2007 and 2011 SONAR surveys yielded significantly more precise and comprehen­sive seafloor mapping (305-km2) over a five-day period. Another field program followed in late 2012. HOVs were used to collect sediment samples and biota within 2-m of the mustard bombs and at control sites. Additionally, downward-looking photo­graphs were collected. Time-lapse cameras observed the interactions of marine life with munitions. A mass spectrometer measured chemical agent dispersal in situ.

Combined, these four field programs provided the data to meet criteria outlined in PL 109-364 § 314. Completion of field­work is scheduled for late 2014 with the report expected in 2015. Based on data collected thus far, the impacts of the muni­tions on the environment and those who use it are acceptable.

Every aspect of HUMMA has been conducted in a phased, collaborative fashion with team members offering their expertise. The team has continually evalu­ated its performance, and, when needed, modified its approaches. Examples include: 

  • Observing the seafloor from HOVs supplemented by the towed camera, which collected about 68-mi of images.
  • Overcoming potential analytical issues by having data validators work closely with the laboratories to modify methods and take necessary corrective actions.
  • Designing and deploying time-lapse cameras to observe munitions and the interactions of biota with them over multiple days. (This led to several discov­eries, including a new sea star species.)


While HUMMA is on track to conclude in 2015, several objectives remain. Chief among them is transferring the lessons learned so they can be applied elsewhere.

Chemical and conventional underwater munitions sites exist around the world. Understanding their interaction and impact on the environment, whether positive or negative, is the key to determining best management practices. The intent is for DOD and the international community to benefit from the work completed off the coast of Hawaii—and for others to build upon our success.



Sonia M. Shjegstad, PMP, M.SAME, is Environmental Division Manager, Environet Inc.; 808-833-2225, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Geoffrey Carton, M.SAME, is Senior Analyst, CALIBRE Systems Inc.; 301-807-2704, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Margo H. Edwards, Ph.D., is Senior Research Scientist, Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, University of Hawaii-School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology; 808-956-5232, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..