No doubt, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time ... or at least an acceptable risk. But it was just wishful thinking. Sort of like drilling for oil a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico even though you had no backup plan for dealing with a catastrophic blowout.

From the end of World War I until Congress banned waste disposal in the ocean in 1972, the U.S. military routinely dumped old munitions - including chemical weapons - in the sea.

In 2007, nearly 1,800 World War I-era munitions - potentially explosive fuses, in this case - were pumped ashore during a beachfill project in Surf City.

And this week, an Atlantic City clam boat working 45 miles south of Long Island hauled up two apparent mustard-gas shells in its dredge. The deckhand who threw the shells overboard ended up with painful blisters three-quarters of an inch high on his arm and leg. Tests confirmed that he had been exposed to mustard gas, one of the weapons routinely dumped at sea by the military.

Military officials have long said the full extent of the dumping is unknown. But even from what is available in the records, it is clear the numbers were staggering. In 1967 the Army dumped 4,577 1-ton containers of a mustard agent and 7,380 sarin rockets off New Jersey. In other cases, entire ships were scuttled, with their chemical weapons encased in concrete. There are at least three such dumping sites off Atlantic City.

Issues tend to float in and out of the public's consciousness, and the dumping of these chemical weapons has been out of sight and out of the public's mind for quite some time. During the Clinton administration, there was a brief call for better monitoring of the dump sites. But now this is an issue that pretty much concerns only commercial fishermen, who know all too well what can come over the side from the bottom of the ocean.

Forty years after the last chemical weapons were dumped, however, they are still there and still capable of harming people. One expert said the mustard gas dredged up this week would be just as toxic as it was when it was dumped - an uncomfortable thought.

The nation's focus right now, of course, is on the devastating oil spill in the Gulf. But both the spill and the continued threat posed by these old chemical weapons dumped at sea decades ago serve as reminders of one of life's truisms:

Future generations invariably pay for previous generations' complacency.

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