Source: IPS News
Concern over sea-dumped chemical weapons such as the mustards that washed up in Wales is growing, particularly in the Baltic Sea – the site of the dumping of 40,000 tonnes of surplus and seized chemical weapons in the years following World War II and the proposed site of the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany.
Following presentations at the U.N. last week and meetings on Capitol Hill later this week, Vaidotas Verba, Lithuania’s ambassador to the Netherlands and to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, hopes to spread awareness of this sea-borne hazard and build momentum for a draft resolution to be presented at the U.N. General Assembly next fall.
"The full extent of chemical weapons dumping will never be known due to inadequate or destroyed records," Verba told a room of officials and experts at the Washington offices of the environmental non-profit Global Green USA Monday.
In addition to the Baltic, abandoned chemical weapons have been dumped in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the North and Mediterranean seas, as well as off the coast of Australia and the Hawaiian island of Oahu, he said.
The Nord Stream project has refocused attention on this issue.
The Helsinki Commission, charged with protecting the relatively shallow and stagnant Baltic from pollution, found no major threats to marine life from abandoned chemical weapons in 1994 and determined that the best way to deal with these materials on the sea floor is to identify where they are and leave them alone.
But laying the two parallel 122-cm Nord Stream pipelines would run a strong risk of disrupting at least a few dumpsites, despite the construction company’s continuing efforts to lay a route that avoids known sites and its disposal, currently underway, of unexploded ordnances in the pipeline’s path.
In addition to sediment building up and burying canisters, the documenting of dumpsites is further complicated by the drifting of objects around the seafloor, Verba explained.
In a possibly analogous case, 4,500 incendiary bombs washed up along the west coast of Scotland a few days after the trench digging for a pipeline from Scotland to Ireland had begun in October 1995.
"Many people think that if it’s in the water, it’s out of sight, out of mind," said Rick Stauber, a retired bomb disposal technician and current disposal analyst, Monday. But the events in Wales, western Scotland and elsewhere suggest otherwise.
Bottom trawling, dredging, and sand and gravel extraction all pose risks, said Verba, in addition to the laying of underwater pipes and cables, of which Nord Stream is only the most prominent case.
While some agents decompose and eventually become harmless in the salt water, others remain viable and dangerous. Sulfur mustards like mustard gas, for instance, undergo a process in water whereby the outer layers solidify into a globule while the mustard liquid inside remains active. If a fisherman drags up this amber-colored lump and dumps it on his deck he could face serious health hazards.
"As long as the water or air doesn’t reach the chemicals inside, it stays dangerous," explained Stauber.
In the United States, the (southeastern Virginia) Daily Press set off a wave of concern and research in 2005 after reporting that 64 million pounds of chemical weapons and 400,000 chemical-filled bombs were dumped off the coasts of several U.S. states in the decades following World War II.
"The 2005 articles generated interest at the Department of Defence," said Stauber, "as there were questions and nobody really had any answers."
One of the many discoveries his and other research then revealed was the 1919 journey of the USS Elinor from Baltimore to New York, dumping surplus weapons along the way. The locations of some of these dumps are known; many are not.
In Operation Davy Jones Locker, the U.S. dumped the tonnes of German chemical weapons that were taking up space in their depots, particularly at the Skagerrak Strait north of Denmark, where they sank German ships they had loaded with captured mustard and nerve gas.
The most pressing issue connected with sea-dumped chemical weapons today is likely the Nord Stream project, which still needs the approval of Finland and Sweden, through whose waters it will pass, after gaining the approval of Denmark Tuesday.
In this connection, Markus Binder, an independent nonproliferation analyst and former deputy director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Programme at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, has some reservations about the motivations of states like Lithuania in bringing the chemical weapons issue to the forefront now.
Lithuania has expressed concern over the possibility of a pipeline to Western Europe that will circumvent its territory and, thus, the possibility of Russia cutting off its gas supplies.
Appealing to the dangers of laying pipe amongst chemical weapons dumpsites, known and unknown, might delay this possibility. The chemical weapons are probably an issue of concern to Lithuania, Binder said Monday, "but why they’re of so much concern is likely strategic."
Listening to the Baltic States and others, sometimes it sounds like at any moment someone could disturb a dumpsite and a cloud of gas will explode, he said, but as a threat, it is really no worse an environmental or health problem than industrial runoff from old factories in the former Soviet Union. "It’s a manageable issue," he said.
How it might be managed, however, remains to be seen. Chemical weapons dumped before 1985 are not required to be declared to the OPCW, so German weapons dumped into the Baltic by a Russian ship in 1946 and dislodged next year by an Italian construction crew could pose a difficult question regarding who has the responsibility to clean up the abandoned weapons.
Most likely, posits Stauber, the weapon would just be dumped back overboard in order to avoid the delays and legal issues a clean-up operation would entail.
Lithuania’s concern over the current and potential dangers of sea-dumped chemical weapons is at least genuine enough to cause it to push for a draft resolution at the U.N. in 2010 as well as new research and publicity projects to educate the public about the hazards of chemical weapons in their waters.
"The main object of our efforts is to encourage dialogue between the countries affected," said Verba.