After the hateful, murderous regime of the Nazis was defeated about 70 years ago thanks to the sacrifices of millions of people, the allied victors did something rather strange. Based on decisions made at the Potsdam Conference in 1945 where Stalin, Churchill, and Truman met, Britain and the Soviet Union dumped about 65,000 tonnes of Nazi chemical weapons into the rather shallow waters of the Baltic Sea (average depth, 55 meters/180 feet).
The problem is that artillery shells and metal drums corrode over time… Nobody is quite sure what state the chemical weapons are in, but scientists have called it a “ticking time-bomb” and recent research has raised the alarm:
Recent research by Poland’s Military University of Technology has found traces of mustard gas on the sea bed just a few hundred metres off the Polish coast, in the Gulf of Gdansk. This indicates corrosion of the metal, and that poisonous chemicals are now leaking into the water and could be absorbed by fish, entering the food chain. Scientists are concerned, but not just because containers are leaking. There should be no chemical weapons in the Gulf of Gdansk as this was not a dumping zone. Stanislaw Popiel, from the team of the military university, which carried out the research, said that it was hard to say where the contamination came from. (source)
One thing making this situation more complicated is that the Soviets apparently didn’t give much of a hoot back then, and didn’t always dump the chemical weapons where they were supposed to be. A tendency to throw them overboard as soon as they were out of sight of the coast was reported… This means there could be leaky chemical weapons in unknown spot, possible near the coast or fishing zones. Jacek Beldowski, from the Polish Institute of Oceanography, has also found an “increase in fish with illnesses and genetic defects in the areas of the known dumping zones; evidence that some of the containers are indeed leaking.”
Some Baltic states have been looking into removing some of the chemical weapons from the bottom of the sea, but even that would be hard – just finding them – and dangerous, as rusty drums could break apart when moved.
But disposing of chemical weapons at sea isn’t just something that happened decades ago. A few weeks ago, chemical weapons were in the news again when it was announced that Syrian chemical weapons would be destroyed in the Mediterranean. Thankfully this time they won’t just be dumped overboard; rather, they will be destroyed on board of a US ship (pictured above) that is fitted with special equipment (two Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems) designed for that. It’s certainly dangerous and not ideal, but so would bringing the chemicals to another country, or trying to do the job inside Syria, where attacks and sabotage are very likely… The deadline for the decommissioning and destruction of the Syrian weapons is June 30. Let’s hope all goes well.