Baltic seabed’s chemical weapon cemetery is torpid but can explode at any time

  • 2011-04-28
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

KLAIPEDA - Strollers along the serene Baltic seashore on the Lithuanian coast, can usually pick up tiny amber nubs. Some strollers once in a while bump into washed-ashore World War II training or still-live torpedoes, missiles or other ammunition from the war. One cannot miss a precarious rusty war-time grenade. However, the utmost danger mostly lurks disguised, in little tins, cans or containers. Although rusty and shapeless, they contain lethal chemicals. These are both on the seashore and out in the sea.

A few years ago, some fishermen burnt their hands severely while picking up a metal-scrap-looking rusty canister. Under thorough scrutiny, it turned out the fishing nets had gotten entangled with a serial killer. Seventy years ago, the cannister might have suffocated thousands: it was a container of the chemical warfare agent yperite, commonly known as mustard gas. Luckily for the fishermen, it was an empty one. However, still dangerous.

How many tons of lethal chemical weapons, the remnants of the gruesome war, doze on the seabed, torpid but explosive, capable of annihilating everything?

Cleaning up the Baltic Sea of chemical weapons has been a debate for several decades now, but it seems no one gets things moving. Seemingly, so far, only historians, ship masters and oceanographers keep ringing the danger bell.
Information about the disposal of chemical weapons had been classified for a long time. Currently, Russia has partly declassified documents of its chemical weapons’ disposal. Similar documents in England and the United States have been granted confidentiality for 50 years, but in 1997 it was extended for another 20 years, till 2017. Already available military archives disclose that Nazi Germany’s military arsenal had accumulated over 300,000 tons of aircraft bombs of different caliber, missiles, mines, and grenades with chemical cartridges. Germany had amassed large quantities of chemical explosives, such as yperite, lucite, adamsite, phosgene, and diphosgene cartridges. Such hazardous materials as sarin, tabun, and soman, whose production started towards the end of the war, had also been used.

The actual quantities of the lethal invisible weaponry are staggering - military archives of what the Soviet Union buried in the Baltic Sea in 1945 reveal the following: 71,469 aviation bombs with yperite, 14,258 chloracetophene bombs, 8,027 adamsite bombs, 408,565 artillery projectiles with yperite, 34,592 chemical land mines, 10,420 chemical smoke mines, 1,004 containers with 1,506 tons of yperite, 8,429 barrels with 1,030 tons of adamsite and divinilchlorarsine, 169 tons of containers of cyanide salt, chloroarsine and cyanarsine. The Soviet Union also reportedly sank 7,860 boxes of cyclone gas in the Baltic Sea. The cyclone gas was used in 300 concentration camps to poison prisoners in gas chambers.

For Lithuania, priding itself on its access to the Baltic Sea, the conundrum may be no less of a head-ache than for the much more weaponry-exposed and resource-rich Germany or Denmark. However, Lithuania has not yet come up with any suggestion as to how to deal with the imminent danger. The Baltic Times’ attempts to obtain any information on the Lithuanian side’s efforts tackling the issue have hit a snag. None of the three contacted ministries – Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Economy and Ministry of Foreign Affairs – could provide any worthy information regarding the issue. Tomas Berzinskas, press officer for Lithuania’s Ministry of Environment, explained that “the Ministry is not involved with the issue in any way,” and directed The Baltic Times to his counterpart in the Ministry of Economy. However, the response from Laura Sebekiene, head of the Department of Public Relations and Protocol, was futile, directing us back to the previous institution, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The Ministry of Economy is responsible only for the implementation of the Convention outlining designing, production, accumulating, proliferation and appliance of chemical weapons. The provisions of the Convention are not applied to the chemical weapons that were buried in the Baltic Sea until January 1, 1985. The Baltic States can assume tackling of the issues related to the sunken chemical weapons on their own. That is what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is currently involved with,” Sebekiene’s e-mail said. A representative of the latter pointed out that the United Nations, at the end of 2010, passed a resolution, initiated by Lithuania, on the sunken chemical weaponry. “It was the first resolution ever submitted independently by our country,” the official emphasized, adding, “By the resolution, states and international organizations are encouraged to work more closely in evaluating threats of sunken chemical ammunitions to the environment.” Note, however, that the resolution had been spearheaded by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. Nonetheless, it does not raise issues of the practical dealing with the threats – the lifting up of the ammunition or destroying it. Pressed on that, the Ministry’s representative dodged the question, emphasizing the importance of the resolution.

“Such a stance, sticking to a doctrinal, non-binding resolution, does not surprise me at all. Our president has shown she can be matter-of-fact, however, the resolution is just a sheet of paper, in no way obliging anyone to take on the practical side of the issue. Evidently, Lithuania, lacking resources, can just try to nudge the other mightier Baltic neighbors to get them to do something. However, it seems that no country is ready for anything. Obviously, the reasoning it-does-not-pose-imminent-danger-as-the-chemicals-have-been-beneath-the-calm-surface-for-so-long kicks in on different echelons of policy-makers,” Juozas Dautartas, deputy chairman of Vilnius Regional Environment Protection Department and chairman of the newly-formed Green Sajudis Party, maintained to The Baltic Times.

He warns, however, of the looming dangers from the sunken chemical weaponry. “The problem is far larger than we may imagine it to be. It is irresponsible to think that possible environmental disasters will pass by us. It is irresponsible to hope that the weaponry will be sealed by the seabed and the tons of water forever. It will not, as corrosion some day will release the reservoirs of yperite, lucite, adamsite or phosgene, and cause immeasurable damage for the ecology. When I say some day, I mean in 20, 50 or 100 years from now. The timeline is not important when we speak about the hazard - the lethal chemicals will not evaporate or dwindle, as some mistakenly expect. Lithuania should initiate international research on the subject at least,” a convinced Dautartas said.

Already almost 400 cases have been recorded where Danish fishermen raised barrels and tanks in their nets, containing yperite or shells loaded with hazardous materials. In the eastern Baltic region, on the Latvian trawler Jurmala, fishermen also caught an aviation bomb containing yperite. Some of the crew had to be taken to the hospital.
It is believed that both the Danish and Latvian fishermen’s nets caught the chemical weapons which the Soviet Union dropped into the Baltic Sea. Norwegian fishermen have also caught some hazardous chemicals. The Baltic Sea is dotted with spots marking detected piles of the chemical weapons. Some of the chemical weaponry was buried between Klaipeda, Liepaja and Ventspils.

Various scholars have long been arguing over the scope of the chemical litter and geography. Almost all unanimously agree that the largest stockpiles of the deadly material rest on the seabed near the Danish Bornholm Island. At a depth of 92 meters, five ships with chemical weapons have been found there. Chemical weapon disposal sites there were studied by the scientists of the Russian vessel Professor Stockman and the Polish vessel Doktor Liubecki. The researchers argued that the sunken ships with chemical weapons have already been severely rusted. The worst thing is that, instead of putting the chemical weapons in their holds, they were supposedly left on deck and were later scattered around. One of the threatening factors is that the waters around Bornholm Island are especially full of fish, and the fishermen from Denmark, Sweden, and eastern Baltic countries fish there. Thus, if Bornholm is the realm of the chemical ammunition cemetery, Lithuania can be called its gates.

“Very little information is available on chemical weapon disposal in the least studied Lithuanian and Latvian waters. It has been reported that chemical weapons in Lithuania are buried from 84 to 126 meters deep. However, the precise burial place of these chemicals is unknown. Some years ago, the Lithuanian government appealed to international organizations for help in carrying out thorough studies, but nobody seems to be doing anything. However, the issue is more important to Sweden, Denmark or Latvia than Lithuania. I doubt whether we will see any practical steps in tackling the issue anytime soon,” Vladas Zulkus, rector of Klaipeda University and ex-director of the Institute of the Baltic Sea Region History and Archaeology, acknowledged to The Baltic Times.

Cleaning the Baltic Sea of chemical weapons would require laborious work. So far, only Denmark is deliberating a possible chemical weapons cleaning program. Based on the program, clearing up Skagen Bay alone of the chemical weapons would require from 3 to 5 years and cost about 3 billion U.S. dollars. So far, however, the staggering costs hamper its launch. In order for it to be implemented, it is required that the United States and England declassify documents on the weapon disposal sites. Will they do that and not jeopardize their military secrets?

Not all Lithuanian environment-savvy scholars see the weaponry as an imminent ecological catastrophe. “I do not think that the ammunition can pose a bigger risk for the environment, unless it is [moved] accidentally by a human intervention. The water beneath [the surface] is practically stagnant, forming its specific, little-or-not-at-all affected by outside factors ecological environment. Very likely, the tins and containers with the dangerous chemicals have already eroded, spreading the chemicals locally in a limited space, and causing relatively little environmental damage due to the environmental immobility. Thus, the ecosystem itself contains the damage,” says Antanas Kontautas, environmentalist and vice-dean of faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Klaipeda University.

He asserts that building Nord Stream, a gas pipeline on the Baltic seabed, involves certain risks of inflicting the scattered cemeteries of the sunken weaponry. However, the scholar claims, the risks and the ability of the ecosystems of “damage-containing” must have been taken into account by the builders. “If tectonic shifts do not occur on the seabed, we will be fine,” Kontautas says. He noted that several chemical weapons ammunition spots have already been pinpointed for ship captains in the proximity of Lithuania. “Captains are aware of them and shun them. Obviously, there might be a lot more of them in our waters, however, Lithuania has no resources to perform the research,” the Klaipeda University vice-dean emphasized.

Algimantas Kutanovas, chief ecologist and major in the Lithuanian Army, disagrees with Kontautas, admonishing of the scope of the looming ecological disaster. “On the bottom of the Baltic Sea, about 300,000 tons of chemical warfare agents are located. Metal containers with chemicals have been affected by corrosion over the decades. Certain calculations claim that in case of a simultaneous release of these chemicals, which can happen any time soon, the poisonous agents will suffice to destroy life in the entire Baltic aerial. Furthermore, we have to take into consideration the immobility of the Baltic Sea’s waters, and record-high pollution there. It poses huge environmental and human risks. Let us not forget that we have a pile of the chemical weaponry detected near Klaipeda, in the free economic zone. Latvia is even more endangered by the scattered lethal weaponry in its territorial waters. Unfortunately, Lithuania and Latvia themselves are not capable of tackling the problem on their own. Therefore, the governments must act immediately, seeking to highlight internationally the issue,” Kutanovas said.