San Diego Rodolfo Anguiano, member of the Playas de Tijuana environmental organization Grupo Gaviotas (seagulls), wears a pair of latex gloves as he holds the gray metal cylinder, about a foot and a half long and three inches in diameter. It's one of eight that he and other Gaviotas have picked up on the first three miles of beach south of the border fence. "But some of the cylinders," says Anguiano, whose snowy white hair and mustache make him look like Mark Twain, "were a little bigger than this one, maybe two feet long. Some were still smoking when we got to them. And others, if you overturned them or moved them, would react and start to give off fumes. They started washing up about a year and a half ago."
Standing inside the cluttered Grupo Gaviotas office, a block from the beach, Anguiano spins the cylinder in his hands so that the visitors from San Diego can read the labels. One of them, white with surprisingly unfaded red lettering, reads, "FLAMMABLE. DO NOT HANDLE. MAY CAUSE SERIOUS BURNS. IF FOUND NOTIFY POLICE OR MILITARY." At the other end of the cylinder, faded black lettering lays out a procedure for arming and launching the device. Both labels are in English.
Anguiano reads enough English to know the cylinder contains phosphorous and knows enough chemistry to understand that it's dangerous. He carefully places it in a paper bag, which he stores out of doors. But he worries about the Playas beachgoers who don't read English. "Who knows how many more of these have washed up here?" he says. "I'm afraid that people might just pick it up, or handle it like a toy or a novelty, or even keep it as a souvenir, not knowing how dangerous it is."
Letters Anguiano has written to his congressman and even to President Fox about the mysterious containers washing up in Playas have gone unanswered. More responsive was the local office of the federal agency Attorneyship for the Protection of the Environment, known in Mexico by the acronym PROFEPA. The Mexican counterpart to the Environmental Protection Agency came and collected seven of the smoking cylinders from the Gaviotas, albeit eight hours after they were called. Anguiano kept the eighth cylinder for publicity purposes, though he admits, "I don't really know what it is and where it came from."
"We see those things all the time," says Imperial Beach lifeguard Don Davis over the phone, pausing to direct a swimmer away from a riptide area over the station loudspeaker.
"They're phosphorous flares from Navy ships and they're really dangerous. You probably shouldn't handle them. At room temperature, they can go off and start smoking and get very hot."
When Davis or one of his colleagues finds a flare on Imperial Beach, they call the San Diego County Sheriff dispatch office, who in turn calls the Sheriff's bomb/arson team, which is run by Sergeant Conrad Grayson. Reached by phone, Grayson immediately confirmed that the cylinders are flares from the Navy. "The smaller size is the Mark 25, and the Mark 58 is the big one. We're very familiar with them; we pick up 80 to 100 of them a year, all over the beaches from San Onofre all the way to the border park. I have been doing it for 26 years. It is a routine procedure."
Asked for a more detailed description of the flares, Grayson reads from a training bulletin he wrote on how to handle them. " 'The Mark 58 is a floating marine location marker which provides reference points on water during the day or night by producing white smoke and yellow flame for 40 to 60 minutes.... They are painted white or gray with black stenciling. They are made of steel coated with an alloy of tin and lead, and weigh approximately 12.8 pounds. Each flare contains...a pyrotechnic composition of red phosphorous.' " The Mark 25 flare, according to Grayson's bulletin, also burns red phosphorous but, at 18.99 inches, is shorter than the 21.78-inch Mark 58 and weighs only four pounds. "I wrote the first training bulletin on handling these things in 1984," he recalls. "And because this is an ongoing thing, I updated the thing on May 2001, and I pass these out to all the lifeguard departments and all the fire departments in San Diego County."
The training bulletin calls for the reporting agency, usually lifeguards, to not handle the cylinder but to watch over it to keep beachgoers from touching it and then call the bomb/arson team. "We're usually there within 20 minutes," Grayson says. "What we do is we get wet sand and seal it off and then we duct tape the heck out of it so that it doesn't allow any air in and then we have special metal tubes that we get from the military that we place them in to transport them to our range in East County. They are stored there until someone comes from Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal and takes them away. This is very routine for us.
"The worst thing you can do," Grayson continues, "is handle one of these. Because what happens is a certain amount of phosphorous doesn't burn away. So this thing bobs around in the ocean, and the ocean water will then seal up the pores that would allow the smoke to come out. And it becomes encrusted and then it floats ashore. The lifeguards are usually the ones who find them, but periodically someone will come along and kick the thing, which may knock the crustaceans off it and then it starts burning and letting off smoke and getting really hot because air will cause phosphorous to burn."
Even more dangerous than that possibility, Grayson says, is the occasional beachcomber who "either can't read or is just stupid" and decides to take the flare home as a souvenir. "So they put it in the trunk of their car and they go bumping down the highway and all of a sudden they smell smoke and their car is on fire. I teach all the CHP officers in this county and in Riverside to call me when they see the trunk of a car just catch on fire, which is unusual. There will usually be the remains of a flare canister in there."
Though picking up the flares from the county's beaches may be routine for the bomb/arson team, this year hasn't been routine in terms of the numbers they've retrieved. "We've picked up over 100 already, and it's only September." Grayson attributes the increase to the fact that "there's a war going on."
That increase may account for the flare canisters showing up in Playas, where, Anguiano says, they haven't been seen before. But Grayson says they have washed up on northern Baja beaches before. When that happens, Grayson explains, "Their federal EPA will call us, and we will go down to Otay and meet them at Customs. We take the flare from them and tape it up the way it is supposed to."
He adds, "They are just not trained in how to handle these things; they throw them in the back of their pickup truck."
Grayson says the English-only labeling might account for the poor handling in Mexico. "I can't tell the U.S. government what to do," he says, "but they should make these labels in Spanish too. Because these things end up down as far as Ensenada."