BENEATH THE SHALLOW DEPTHS
In 2011, after spending about five weeks at sea, the fishing vessel Katrine Søe hauled an unusual object aboard from the shallow depths of the Baltic Sea. After returning to port for scheduled maintenance works, the crew eventually dumped the clumpy mass at the quay, alongside other discarded materials caught in their netting while fishing, before preparing to set sail again. Dumping ‘recovered’ human-made refuse at quayside facilities for proper disposal is simply good environmental practice. Before the vessel could fully depart the port however, a harbour worker would come into direct contact with this discarded matter, before gradually experiencing burning sensations on his skin, abdominal pains, nausea, some loss of vision, and respiratory complications necessitating medical intervention. The Katrine Søe, as with a concerning number of similar incidents with fishermen documented by the marine protection organisation HELCOM, had inadvertently raised from the depths an old World War II chemical munition containing still-viable concentrations of sulphur mustard; material more infamously known from World War I as ‘mustard gas’. Full decontamination ensued, along with proper disposal of the object by hazardous waste authorities.
The Baltic Sea possesses many similar weapon graveyards secreted beneath the undulating waves; disposal sites for the varied stockpiles of Biological and Chemical Warfare agents (BCW) which had been manufactured, but never tactically deployed, by the defeated Axis powers. Post-WWII, Allied nations were left with a difficult decision on what should be done with the vast arsenals of deadly chemical warfare agents and other biological materials, equating to about 296,103 tons of captured hazardous munitions, recovered across the four zones of occupied Germany alone. Many of these found substances had been mass-produced, alongside equivalent stockpiles within Allied nations (for context, see the ‘Bari Incident’) over the duration of the war, despite all parties being signatories to the 1925 Geneva Protocol [for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare]. Now, lethal stockpiles of BCW were recklessly abandoned across several continents, sometimes hastily left within landfills, unsecure warehouses, train carriages, and even simple holes dug beneath the shallow topsoil. The Continental Committee on Dumping was hastily convened and concluded that materials should be disposed of in the most convenient way to neutralise any foreseeable immediate threat. This resolution led to the United States and United Kingdom jointly conducting ‘Operation Davy Jones’ Locker’ (1946–1948), in parallel with several other Allied disposal
operations around the coasts of Hawaii, Australia, Italy, along with the North and Kara Seas, and regions of the Atlantic Ocean. Later, the UK would conduct ‘Operation Sandcastle’ (1955–1956) to dispose of 71,000 captured (and by then leaking) Tabun bombs beneath the cold Atlantic waters. There is also evidence of Nazi Germany pre-dumping munitions in the Baltic regions to prevent its capture, along with [partially] reported deposition activities by the Red Army.
In a similar fashion, several U.S. dumping operations for confiscated Japanese BCW stockpiles took place around the island's coastline, but a large majority of deadly agents produced by Imperial Japan were simply abandoned by their retreating forces in shallow burial pits across occupied Manchuria. Today, a vast quantity of these unearthed CW munitions are now isolated within burial pits at Haerbaling Mountain awaiting final disposal, however chemical agents have still been recovered in more than 90 locations across 18 Chinese provinces, sometimes with tragic consequences. Estimates for this enduring dilemma vary between governments (by China’s account, a staggering 2 million CW munitions were left behind, while Japan estimates about 700,000 objects). Beyond post-war disposal activities across the Baltic Sea and Japanese coastline, the U.S. had also controversially conducted a series of dumping operations off its own coast (for instance, using the S.S. William C. Ralston), before later instigating ‘Operation CHASE’ (literally; ‘Cut Holes And Sink ‘Em’) using obsolete vessels around its own distant shorelines in the late 1960’s (to dispose of surplus U.S. CW armaments). In the case of the Baltic Sea (but, likely also in these subsequent dumping operations elsewhere), hundreds of tons of sulphur mustard, Adamsite, Lewisite, hydrogen cyanide, arsenic compounds, Bacillus anthracis spores, VX, sarin, soman, tabun, and other precursor nerve agent ingredients were sent to the depths aboard these scuttled ships – or loosely thrown overboard during transit to the sanctioned ‘official’ disposal sites – to, in theory, isolate substances from future human interaction.
While official estimates do vary, it is believed that about 15,000 tons of deadly BCW materials now reside on the shallow Baltic seabed alone. Environmental mapping and risk assessments performed by international groups, most notably the CHEMSEA project, have revealed a glimpse of how these antiquated disposal practices were conducted across the Baltic Sea yet, as exemplified by the Katrine Søe, ‘despite being dumped in the fifties these objects still cause incidents today’. As the historian Susan L. Smith has noted in ‘Toxic Exposures’, materials such as sulphur mustard, do not easily degrade in their watery graveyards. Rather, they tend to develop outer crusts through hydrolysis (the material polymerises into a clumpy clay-like mass with a by-product coating) which, in combination with temperature and other water parameters, tend to preserve substances in solid form on the ocean floor for many decades – perhaps for far, far longer. Despite then isolating these agents from human
hands, the toxic material remains viable over indeterminate periods of time while awaiting a fateful re-encounter or searching for other unanticipated channels to reach beyond the Baltic’s cold, murky depths. While monitoring of the global distillation, bioaccumulation and biomagnification of these materials, and toxic by-products in marine organisms such as daphnia and molluscs is still a nascent enterprise in oceanography, these indirect observations by CHEMSEA have revealed that our chemical graveyards are now leaking; resulting in the uptake of toxic compounds and by-products across distributed populations of biota. Here, we can readily observe another unfortunate man-made heirloom; lethal
contaminants can and often do leak, thus mobilising hazardous toxins elsewhere using our planet’s established bio-geo-chemical cycles.
Despite these stark observations, crucial follow-up fieldwork still experiences great adversity today due to funding shortfalls, equipment hire, study timeframes, locating data points, and even the seasonal weather patterns. The oceans and regional seascapes, despite these cardinal difficulties of documentation, general navigation, and physical observation windows, are perhaps the most prominent examples of the long-lasting legacies associated with the protracted lifespans of chemical and biological warfare agents, and associated material residues. Indeed, this material ‘fallout’ from nascent ocean disposal practices, is also readily apparent across a number of other long-term hazardous legacies documented by the After the Horizon programme. An identifiable commonality within these environmental debates surrounding early disposal enterprise, is the conflicting expert agendas, and pre-emptive actions taken by some without advanced investigations into how these lurking substances may interact with biota food chains, cross-species populations, and ecosystem circulation patterns, or adequate knowledge gained from fieldwork in these regions. The excellent book ‘Poison in the Well’, provides a
fair and balanced summary of these nascent, unverifiable policy decisions, and general mishaps for radiological waste disposal in the oceans, with poignant lessons for wider BCW waste material management categories.
WHAT IS OUT OF SIGHT...
The situation in the Baltic Sea with Katrine Søe, alongside more serious incidents aboard the Polish fishing vessel WŁA 206 in January 1997, and the Danish trawler vessel Hildarstindür in 1984, demonstrate that discarded BCW materials will likely continue to have an enduring international impact on both human and environmental health. These pathways are not only from direct vectors of exposure, but also through indirect consequences from both leaking munitions and disturbed graveyards as disposal zones come into greater conflict with economical ventures and commercial industries at sea. The legacies of BCW agents prove that what is 'out of sight', does not necessarily
always remain ‘out of mind’, with the living memory of, and the recorded psychological traumas from chemical weapons deployed during past conflicts also contributing to this adverse, hazardous legacy we are now beginning to see re-emerge from beneath the waves. This material is, essentially, an ‘alternative heritage’. But its present status is also a prototypical example of how a quick solution for an obvious problem, where the inherent risks are not fully understood, can cascade into far more severe, but conventionally less tangible issues that simply shift the risk across multiple generations. Understandably, Scandinavian and Northern European
fishermen likely do not appreciate this un-consulted, haphazard fouling of their native ‘commons’ with BCW agents and other lethal (conventional) munitions, decades before they were even born to protest against such decisions.
Despite this past preference for ocean disposal, land-based equivalents for BCW agent dumping are also readily encountered today. Instances include the CW dilemma at Haerbaling Mountain, but also abandoned postmodern sites like the former Soviet Union’s ‘Aralsk-7’ facility on Vozrozhdeniya Island (a BW site likely containing viable specimens of weapons-grade Bacillus anthracis spores, alongside other pathogens), and the Leonidovka pine forest (an unofficial dumpsite for USSR chemical warfare agents), along with the inherited psychological heritage from former testing ranges like the Dugway Proving Ground and Gruinard Island (in spite of the latter eventually receiving extensive remediation works). Concerns for the unknown dangers lurking beneath these sites proliferate, sometimes with good reason. As opined by the environmental engineer Carsten Bubke in reference to the Dethliner Pond (a shallow pit near Münster, containing chemical and conventional munitions from both World Wars that have been oozing into the groundwater for decades); ‘Maybe we were just lucky that no one came here in the past few decades and started digging. There were times when we were shocked by how many shells there were’.
LIVING WITH SPECTRES
Today, many similarly concerning dumpsites for munitions are found across the German landscape, and far beyond its borders, but the breadth of these problems remains profoundly unknown without an inventory of where, what, or how BCW agents were discarded. Given the often secretive nature of these technological enterprises, and awkward disposal of the lethal products, some hazardous mysteries necessitate ‘rediscovery’ for formal recording and remediation to finally commence – as with the present situation of Leonidovka forest. Here, uncharted dump locations are narrowed down, but not positively identified. The local population is understandably concerned, especially when some of these hazardous compounds and by-products (such as arsenic) were found to have leached into the nearby reservoir. Local military authorities deny there are any buried CW munitions in Leonidovka, and site records are either missing or not disclosed – problems which prevent the local populace awakening from this enduring ‘nightmare’. As with munitions haphazardly dumped at sea, it is unlikely posterity will retain robust knowledge of these sites via local lore and generational memory, without adequate records. BCW agents – the varyingly weaponized ‘germs and gases’ along with their lingering and decaying residues – are perhaps the most visible facet of the long-term toxic material profile that will be bequeathed to forthcoming generations; the vast, silent masses who cannot readily ‘have a say’ over intergenerational storage, pollution, or indiscriminate dumping acts.
Since the late 1960’s and the thawing of long-standing Cold War tensions, there has been a growing impetus within the international community to finally phase BCW agents out from global arsenals; tentative arms control agreements perhaps best exemplified by the ratification of both the Biological Weapons Convention (1975) and Chemical Weapons Convention (1993) to prohibit biological and chemical toxin development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling, and use of these hazardous materials for global safety and security. Following these conventions, some entities, as in the cases of GEKA in Münster and
Japanese weapons-disposal efforts in Chinese Provinces, have established a specialised cottage industry for the proper disposal of older chemical munitions – offering momentum for the responsible disposal of hazardous agents. Much of this international consensus is built upon the earlier Geneva Protocol but, by no means, do these arms control conventions prevent ‘bad faith’ actors from still developing hazardous BCW agents – as seen through the Soviet Union’s covert biological weapons programme which accelerated after signing the Biological Weapons Convention, in addition to several contemporary nations who continue to knowingly pursue nerve agent programmes. Recent history has already seen Sarin, VX, and the Novichok nerve agents re-emerge from history book pages to find modern niches as tools for terrorist and assassination plots rather than ‘traditional’ warfare routes; furnishing us with yet another facet to the evolving nature of BCW agents
Aside from these enterprise and the clearance of unexploded munitions from conflict zones covered under the recent Protocol V addition to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (2003), international obligations do not redress pre-existing BCW contaminated sites, nor can they prevent the cultural mismanagement of many affiliated military or commercial industries that usually lead to long-term ecological damage. Site isolation is considered the best practice in most instances while substances like nerve agents naturally decay or dissipate, but nature and mankind still finds ways of mobilising this lethal matter elsewhere. Examples of this ‘BCW pollution’ can be readily seen in the extinct Times Beach township – a haphazard victim of past CW mass-production in the U.S. The act of intentionally dumping unregulated industrial waste is, unfortunately, yet another facet – though this ethos of placing materials ‘out of sight’ often invites future catastrophes. Pioneering international remediation efforts, such as the notable consortiums involved within the cleanup of radiological sites like the Chernobyl Plant, Delegen Mountain complex, and Kara Sea floor, are difficult to co-ordinate and fund, leaving many contaminated sites to the oversight of succeeding local and national governments, or NGOs, to partly resolve – perhaps, many decades after crucial site records have been misplaced or deteriorated. The intervention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the episode of remediating the ‘Valley of the Drums’, speaks volumes about these generally coalescing problems of short-term thinking, coupled with local liability, responses to growing toxic sites, missing site management records, and the need for wider collective action to mitigate hazardous legacies.
FOOTNOTING FOR POSTERITY
As part of the foundation’s contribution to research in this field, we are stitching together a broad survey of hazardous Biological and Chemical Warfare Agent disposal sites (including; purposeful ‘cemeteries’, other ‘convenient’ dumping sites, contaminated zones, and abandoned facilities likely requiring remediation) from existing peer-reviewed academic studies, inter/national archives, third-party literature, local governance excavation reports, and international journalist investigations, in addition to
penning occasional freedom of information requests. This qualitative survey will have a particularly fine emphasis on adequately assessing the durational, longer-term legacies that may remain precarious for ensuing generations, enabling other parties to gradually build upon this catalogue for the benefit of their own unique operations. Naturally, understanding the scope of the risks posed by these hazardous legacies requires intensive collaboration with relevant disciplinary experts and, as such, the foundation’s contribution to this research should be considered as only part of an extensive inter-organisational effort to chronicle, and audit the conditions of various associated sites, national deposition activities, and other unintentionally contaminated landscapes. Some, if not most, of these identified areas require modern site hazard surveys, condition assessments, or multi-decadal scientific observation, and therefore this archive will hopefully remain as a living human document, open to persistent revision and evaluation by expert authorities. To complement this ongoing archival work, the foundation plans to utilise revised ‘static’ versions of this catalogue, and supporting materials, as a basis for addressing the various semiotical challenges of memory-retention customs, in addition to establishing public outreach, education and engagement activities with this unique ‘alternative heritage’ of adverse, perennial legacies.
Notes to the catalogue: The catalogue is consolidated to simply map known geophysical regions with elevated levels of BCW contamination from documented anthropogenic production/ storage/ deployment activities, with emphasis placed on documenting inheritance from the ‘terminal stages’ of these substances, including; isolated deep-geological storage, ‘leaks’, dumping sites (intentional or otherwise), and occurrences of deployment, or affiliated disaster zones and remediation. Given the obscure history for some of these accounts, known toxicity profile, potential precautions, and need to sometimes rely on the processes of ‘rediscovery’, alongside subsequent follow-up surveys for these identified hazardous legacies, there are some instances of conflicting information already present throughout the archive. No independent judgements on defining a permissible dosage (if any may be proven to exist), or similar medical hazards for human, animal or environmental health, have been applied to any of these substances or logged incidences. The entire catalogue remains an active document, subject to updates, amendments, and further processes of peer-review.
Page last updated: 03 May 2023