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Baltics: Scientists Debate World War II-Era Chemical Weapons Dumped In Sea

  • Valentinas Mite

Following World War II, thousands of tons of German chemical weapons were dumped into the Baltic Sea. Today, some scientists argue that the submerged weapons pose no imminent threat. Others, however, insist that there is no way of knowing whether an ecological catastrophe is around the corner. A particular concern, they warn, is the fact that there are no records to help locate some of the dumping sites.

Prague, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Two weeks ago, the Lithuanian parliament held a seminar dedicated to the problem of German chemical weapons dumped in the Baltic Sea after World War II. Long kept secret by the Soviet government, concern is now growing that the weapons -- many of which were dumped near the coasts of Lithuania and Latvia -- may pose a threat to those country's ecologies. Parliamentarians concluded the session by creating a working group to harness international assistance in dealing with the problem.

In 1945, the Allies seized large arsenals of chemical weapons that had belonged to the Nazis. The arsenals contained some 300,000 tons of mines, grenades, aerial bombs, and artillery shells filled with mustard gas and other poisonous compounds. Britain and the Soviet Union used the Baltic Sea as a depository for the leftover arsenals.

Vadim Paka of the Institute of Oceanography in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad says some 35,000 tons of chemical weapons were dumped in the Baltic after World War II. The weapons were deposited in three areas -- one near Lithuania and Latvia (Gotland Deep), one near Sweden (Bornholm Deep), and one near Denmark and Germany (Little Belt). At the time, ecological concerns were minimal. Many believed the seabed was the safest place to deposit chemicals.

Today, concerns are considerably greater. But even scientists like Paka say it is unclear what threat, if any, the submerged arsenals pose because there have been no conclusions made by experts.

Paka does say, however, that no major ecological changes have been witnessed so far in the Baltic. But there is evidence of slow shifts in conditions near the dumping sites. At the Bornholm site near Sweden, for example, bacteria have developed that are resistant to mustard gas. A new kind of bacteria that disintegrate mustard gas have also appeared. In this case, Paka says, there is hope that the mustard gas stored in the submerged weapons may begin to naturally decompose. But not all the news is good. The dumping sites also register higher acidity and levels of phosphorus.

Paka says the situation is complicated by a shortage of information about the dump site near Lithuania and Latvia. In this area, Soviet soldiers scattered the weapons across large stretches of sea territory. With unpredictable currents carrying the bombs and mines in a variety of directions, it is now nearly impossible to determine the exact location of each bomb or mine.

The British preferred another tactic, scuttling entire ships filled with the weapons. Paka says that while the ships effectively seal off the chemicals, any eventual accident could cause tremendous damage because of the large concentration of deadly chemicals.

Paka says only after locating the sites and establishing monitoring routines will it be possible to determine how dangerous the submerged weapons really are. The Kaliningrad Oceanography Institute has already organized six expeditions to collect more information on the dumping sites, but has had its plans cut short due to lack of funding.

The Swedish Defense Research Institute has also looked into the problem. Hans Rehnvall, the institute's information director, says the weapons pose no imminent threat.

"The main risks are connected with these weapons being caught in fishing gear and brought to the surface. And that, of course, is a risk. It is not considered by us a very great problem, but potentially it is dangerous to bring those things to the surface."

Rehnvall says that many of the dump sites are well-known, and fishermen are advised to avoid them. He admitted, however, that some of the dumped weapons remain unlocated.

Henrikas Zukauskas is a member of the Lithuanian parliament and a former ecology minister. He says the sea is shallow near one dump site, near the town of Sventoji, and that Lithuanian fishermen frequently fish there. Although there have been no incidents to date, bombs and mines are occasionally found in the fishing nets and thrown back into the sea. "On the whole," says Zukauskas, "Lithuanian fishermen are not instructed on how to act in such circumstances."

Zukauskas also cites statistics on similar incidents involving Danish fishermen.

"In 1985, Danish fishermen caught 46 pieces of chemical weapons -- that means that 2,665 tons were removed from the sea bottom."

Zukauskas said that several Danish and German fishermen suffered injuries after coming in contact with the mustard gas. But asked what can be done to avoid such injuries in the future, the lawmaker says that alone, Lithuania can do very little. He says he hopes that as a candidate for both NATO and the EU, his country can ask for help from the global community. "Without international efforts we will not be able to move forward," he says.