World War II Munitions Dumps: A Rusting Timebomb in the Baltic

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World War II bombs, poisonous chemicals, sudden explosions of rusting ordnance pose a major threat to the Baltic Sea in the years to come, say experts. But governments are slow to tackle the problem.

After the end of World War II the Baltic became a dumping ground for unused munitions. After decades of rust and decay in its grey waters, old mines, bombs and torpedoes pose a threat to the sea and the people who cross it, fish in it and live on its shores. Fishermen inadvertently net up to 3 tons of ordnance each year, says environmental expert Stefan Nehring.

Earthquake measuring devices regularly detect explosions in the sea, environmental engineer Marc Koch told an international conference on munitions in the Baltic in Berlin last weekend.

Toxic munitions are expected to wash up on Germany's coast in increasing quantities, warned Robert Zellermann, formerly in charge of bomb disposal in the northern German state of Lower Saxony. Most bombs have rusted and been spread by currents he said, adding that around one-third of the Baltic seabed was now strewn with munitions.

Russian environmental researcher Tengis Borisov went as far as to warn that the Baltic faced a disaster "on a scale comparable with the Chernobyl accident." Beachcombers, fishermen and ships' crews were in danger and fish caught in the Baltic may become inedible, he said.

Most experts see the threat on a smaller scale but add that the danger is hard to estimate because no serious research has been undertaken yet.

A serious environmental problem

Experts said the risks posed by chemical weapons are being underestimated. Many fishermen and navy crew members have suffered acid burns, serious eye damage and cancer by coming into contact with toxic World War II-era materials. If the substances aren't spotted in fishing nets they can get into the food chain, experts warned.

The United States dumped large quantities of the nerve agent Tabun in the Baltic, said Zellermann. He presented documents which he said show that the United States dumped around half a million Tabun bombs in the Skagerrak in the northern Baltic. "The documents only show the minimum, the true amounts are probably far greater," said Zellermann. "We have to prevent the substance from being washed ashore," warned Irina Osokina, a representative of the Russian government at the conference.

Munitions graveyards: These sites are known or suspected by authorities to contain old weapons. But experts believe that the affected areas are actually spread across wide swaths of the Baltic Sea.
SPIEGEL ONLINE

Munitions graveyards: These sites are known or suspected by authorities to contain old weapons. But experts believe that the affected areas are actually spread across wide swaths of the Baltic Sea.

Bomb finds in coastal waters show that the threat is being underestimated. Recently a TV crew filiming in Germany's Kiel Fjord detected 70 torpedo warheads and mines leaking toxic TNT into the water. In 2001 two dozen seamines and more than 3,000 grenades were found in the Bay of Flensburg.

It's not known how many accidents are caused by munitions. Only Denmark publishes statistics, and they show that some 20 people a year are injured by munitions from the sea. In 2005 a mine killed three Dutch fishermen on board their trawler. In the German waters of the Baltic and North sea, accidents linked to munitions occur every year. Several German states have accident statistics, insiders told SPIEGEL ONLINE. But none of them will publish the figures. Angelika Beer, a member of the European Parliament for the German Green Party, said the lack of information was irresponsible and that authorities were ignoring the dangers.

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