Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia: Chemical Weapons Threaten Baltic Sea

Kaliningrad, 15 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russian scientists and chemical weapons experts say evidence is mounting that containers on the bottom of the Baltic Sea which hold more than 305,000 tons of World War II chemical weapons are rusting and leaking.

Dr. Vadim Paka, director of Kaliningrad's Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, tells RFE/RL that his scientists have been studying the issue for years. In 1995, his research team didn't detect anything out of the ordinary. But a 45-day expedition last fall found traces of mustard gas off the coast of the Swedish city of Lysekil, just across from Denmark. Paka said the situation can only worsen.

On the basis of Paka's results, Russian President Boris Yeltsin in December ordered Russia's Commission for Chemical Weapons Disarmament to work on the problem and to cooperate with other governments in the Baltic Sea region.

Vice Admiral Tengiz Borisov, who heads Russia's working group on this problem, says that immediately after the war the Allies reached a secret agreement to pack the chemical weapons onto approximately 60 ships -- the exact number isn't available -- and then sunk them between 1945 and 1947.

Now, locations of only 27 of the ships are known. Admiral Borisov told RFE/RL that about 270,000 tons of toxins are located on the sea bed in the area between Norway and Sweden and Denmark, where the Baltic Sea meets the North Sea. He said these were sunk by British and U.S. forces. He said about 35,000 tons, located off the coast of Kaliningrad, were sunk by the Soviets.

Borisov said that half of the chemical weapons contain mustard gas, while the remaining are filled with 13 other types of chemicals such as sarin and zyklon gas, the deadly agent used during the Holocaust.

The Conversion for the Environment Foundation in Moscow says most of the toxic weapons were confiscated from Nazi Germany at the end of the war, but about 15 percent of the total was Allied chemical weapons.

Greenpeace in Moscow says there may be more. Greenpeace's Ivan Blokov told RFE/RL that large amounts of World War II chemical weapons disappeared without a trace from Soviet military warehouses in the 1940s. Most of them were stored in Zelenogorsk, a small town on the coast of the Gulf of Finland, about a 40 minute drive north of St. Petersburg.

Blokov said that these Soviet chemical weapons may have been sunk in the Baltic or buried somewhere on land.

Environmentalists from a number of countries are divided on the severity of the problem. Dmitri Litvinov, an official at Greenpeace Sweden told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that he fears an imminent catastrophe.

The Helsinki Commission has been studying the problem for several years. Polish scientist Adam Kovalesky, who is the maritime secretary for the Helsinki Commission, told RFE/RL the commission has concluded after investigation that the submerged chemical weapons don't pose a danger to the maritime environment.

Russian Admiral Borisov, however, says action is essential. He proposes that, instead of trying to move the chemicals -- which he says could lead to more leakage or even an explosion -- officials should seek to isolate the ships by encasing each of them in concrete. He said this was done with a Soviet nuclear sub which sank in 1989. He estimates the cost at the equivalent of $2 billion over five years.

John Varoli, a St. Petersburg-based journalist, recently visited Kaliningrad, and prepared this report for RFE/RL, to which he is a frequent contributor.