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.
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.
A Lack of Reliable Information
Tapani Stipa of the Finnish Institute of Maritime Research in Helsinki said he saw little threat to coastal regions of the Baltic because many toxic substances dissolved quickly in the water. But he stressed there wasn't much research into the problem.
Nehring said little was known about the location of the munitions and that much of it was dumped in chaotic circumstances 62 years ago. Crews paid to dispose of ordnance often ignored instructions to dump it in deep water because they wanted to return to port as quickly as possible to get the next load.
That left many bombs strewn widely over the seabed where sea currents and fishing nets spread them further.
Baltic states announced plans 13 years ago to conduct a large scale search for dangerous ordnance, but have not lived up to that pledge, said Irina Osokina.
US records could shed light on the location of dumps, said Manfred Boese, president of the International Institute of Ecological Safety for Baltic and Northern Seas which organized the Berlin conference. But the US will keep its records locked up for at least another 10 years, he said. "In the interest of safety we have to push for that information to be released," said Boese.
Given the amount of ordnance in the Baltic some experts say the planned laying of a 1,200 kilometer gas pipeline from Russia to German along the seabed poses dangers. The project's operator Nord Stream said last week that if munitions are found on the route of the pipeline it will be laid in another area or "other options" will be examined.
Environment expert Koch believes it's time to retrieve the biggest munitions sites from the sea to lessen the threat. The participants of the Berlin conference now plan to compile precise estimates of the threat present it to the summit of leaders of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations taking place in the German Baltic resort of Heiligendamm in June.
Goverments need to start tackling the munitions problem, said Beer. The European Union's Green Book on Maritime Policy makes no mention of the munitions problem. The Europeans plan to agree cross-border rules, with which the EU plans to establish international rules on business, environmental protection, fishing and tourism by the end of 2007 -- areas for which crumbling ordnance lurking on the sea bed could pose a dangerous legacy.