Bombs in the Bay: The Politics of Underwater Munitions in the New York Harbor
It is unlikely that many of the New Yorkers driving the 195,000 vehicles that cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge each day realize that up to 14,000 live anti-aircraft rounds may lie submerged just below them, in only 20 feet of water. The bridge, the longest in the Americas, spans the Narrows channel that passes from Gravesend Bay between Brooklyn and Staten Island and into the New York Harbor. In an academic article published in this month’s Marine Technology Society Journal, I look at how the risk of these munitions has played out in New York City’s political context.
Risk and its management are social phenomena, constructed through dynamic political, cultural, and economic systems. Those wishing to publicize and manage the risk posed by legacy underwater munitions would benefit from an awareness of the political context in which they work. The interaction of various local, national, and global political interests will enable certain kinds of risk management action while also constraining others. This article examines such issues through a case study of politics of underwater munitions in New York City’s Gravesend Bay and Narrows. The impetus to deal with these munitions has largely come from their politicization by local civilians: politicians, environmental activists, lawyers, and journalists. By contrast, risk management actions by national-level military institutions have consistently functioned to depoliticize the issue by framing it technocratically. This illustrates a common political tension in risk management. Public mobilization raises awareness of risk but may sensationalize it. Technocrats have the budgetary and technical wherewithal to deal with it professionally but resist politicization of risk and try to channel and defuse mobilization through existing institutions and programs.
The literature and campaigning on landmines and unexploded/abandoned/discarded ordnance focuses on current and former conflict zones. However, in looking at the politics of discarded munitions in New York City, I am trying to illustrate how clearing up munitions is not just a problem ‘Over There’ for Americans. The appearance of such munitions in the heart of metropolitan American displays the residual corrosive impact of militarism, ‘Here’, on the domestic front. Though hidden, the explosive threat of violence we ourselves created to deploy against our communal enemies lies submerged in our domestic spaces — on our beaches, campuses, reefs and even inside our homes. (Click here for a listing of UXO-contaminated sites in the USA or here for an EPA report on UXO accidents in the United States). My hope is that publicizing munitions problem here in the US offers an opportunity to raise awareness among Americans of the impact of landmines, cluster munitions and UXO in other parts of the world.