A survey of chemical weapon graveyards, biological agent disposal sites, toxic waste dumps, contaminated zones, ‘final deposition’ facilities and remediation operations – cultivated to chronicle our long-lasting hazardous bio-chemical heritage, to inform those who will inherit these hidden legacies.
ABOUT 'BIO-CHEMICAL WASTE'
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. Returning to port with the object for scheduled maintenance works, the crew eventually dumped the object at the quay, alongside other discarded materials caught during fishing, before preparing to set sail again. Dumping human-made refuse caught in nets at quay facilities is simply good environmental practice. Before the vessel could fully depart the port, a harbour worker would come into direct contact with the discarded object, experiencing burning sensations on his skin, abdominal pains, nausea, loss of vision, and respiratory complications necessitating medical intervention. The Katrine Søe, as with a concerning number of similar incidents with fishermen documented by HELCOM, had inadvertently raised an old World War II chemical munition, containing still-viable concentrations of sulphur mustard, more infamously known as ‘mustard gas’. Decontamination ensued, along with object disposal by proper authorities.
The Baltic Sea possesses many similar weapon graveyards beneath the undulating waves; disposal sites for the stockpiles of chemical and biological warfare (CBW) agents amassed, but never used, by the defeated Axis powers (official estimates place the total Baltic-dumped caches in the region of 15,000 tons). Post-WWII, Allied nations were left with a difficult decision of what should be done with the vast armaments of deadly chemical warfare agents and other biological materials, equating to about 296,103 tons of captured hazardous munitions, from the four zones of occupied Germany alone. The Continental Committee on Dumping was hastily convened, concluding that the materials should be disposed of in the most convenient way to neutralise any foreseeable immediate threat, leading to the United States and United Kingdom jointly conducting ‘Operation Davy Jones’ Locker’, alongside the UK’s ‘Operation Sandcastle’, and several other Allied disposal operations around the shorelines of Japan, Hawaii, Australia, Italy, along with the North and Kara Seas, and regions of the Atlantic Ocean. There is also evidence of Nazi Germany dumping munitions in these regions, along with [partially] reported Soviet deposition activities. In addition to these post-war disposal activities, the U.S. later instigated Operation CHASE (literally; “Cut Holes And Sink ‘Em”) using obsolete vessels around its own coastline in the late 1960’s. Hundreds of tons of sulphur mustard, Adamsite, Lewisite, hydrogen cyanide, arsenic compounds, Bacillus anthracis spores, VX, saron, tabun, and other nerve agents were sent to the depths aboard scuttled ships – or loosely thrown overboard during transit the sanctioned ‘official’ disposal sites – to, in theory, isolate them from future human interaction.
Environmental mapping and risk assessments performed by international groups, most notably the CHEMSEA project, have revealed a glimpse into these far-reaching disposal practices conducted in this region of the Baltic Sea, whereby “despite being dumped in the fifties these objects still cause incidents today”. Despite then isolating these agents from human hands, they can remain viable over indeterminate periods of time while awaiting a fateful re-encounter. The situation in the Baltic Sea with Katrine Søe, alongside a more serious incident aboard the Polish fishing vessel WŁA 206 in January 1997 and the Danish trawler vessel Hildarstindür in 1984, demonstrate these materials will likely continue to have an enduring impact on both human and environmental health, not only through direct vectors for exposure, but also through leaks from disturbed graveyards as regions come into greater conflict with economical ventures and commercial industries at sea. The legacies of these CBW agents prove that what is ‘out of sight’, does not necessarily always remain ‘out of mind’, with living memory of, and the recorded psychological traumas from, chemical weapons deployed during past conflicts also contributing to this adverse, hazardous legacy we are beginning to see re-emerge from beneath the waves.
As the historian Susan L. Smith has noted in ‘Toxic Exposures’, materials such as sulphur mustard, do not easily degrade in seas. 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 the materials in solid form on the ocean floor for many decades – perhaps for far, far longer. Moreover, 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; fieldwork that often experiences great adversity with funding, equipment hire, study timeframes, locating data points, and even the seasonal weather patterns. This material is, essentially, an ‘alternative heritage’, but it’s 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 a far more serious, but conventionally less tangible, issues that simply shift the risk across generations. Understandably, Scandinavian and Northern European fishermen likely do not appreciate this unconsulted, haphazard fouling of their native ‘commons’ with CBW agents and other lethal munition, decades before they were even born.
The oceans and regional seascapes, despite the difficulties of documentation, general navigation, and physical observation windows, are perhaps the most visible 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 in 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 unseen 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 of radiological waste disposal in the oceans, with poignant lessons for wider waste material management categories.
Despite this archaic preference for ocean disposal, other land-based equivalents for CBW weapons development are also readily experienced, such as the former Soviet Union’s abandoned Aralsk-7 facility – a site likely still containing viable specimens of Bacillus anthracis spores (i.e. weapons-grade strains of Anthrax) alongside other pathogens – and Leonidovka forest (an unofficial dumpsite for USSR chemical weapon agents), along with the psychological heritage of former testing sites, such as the Dugway Proving Ground, and Gruinard Island (in spite of the latter landscape eventually receiving extensive remediation works). As opined by the environmental engineer Carsten Bubke in reference to the Dethliner Pond (a shallow pit located near Münster in Germany, containing deposits of chemical and conventional munitions from both World Wars that has been oozing warfare agents 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”. Many similar dumpsites for munitions can be found all over this country and beyond its borders, but the extent of this problem remains unknown without an inventory of where, what, or how CBW agents were discarded. Some hazardous mysteries necessitate ‘rediscovery’ for formal recording and remediation to occur – as with the present situation of Leonidovka forest; the dump locations are narrowed down, but not identified. 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. However, CBW agents – the varyingly weaponized ‘germs and gases’ along with their lingering or decay residues – are perhaps the most visible facet of the long-term hazardous material legacies 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.
Toxic waste dumpsites, chemical isolation depositories, alongside similar disposal and catastrophe sites, are readily apparent in every country, including many of the world’s freshwater lakes and seas. Some of the more transient, and unintentional, waste disposal practices that lead to overt chemical pollution often piggyback upon the hydrological cycle through defined waterway ‘utilities’, such as urban waste water systems (that are hardly ever ‘closed loops’), former opencast mining pits (as collection and concentration points for contaminants – notably, the ‘Berkeley Pit’), waters near commercial or industrial sectors, sea discharge pipes, and underground streams. Ever since the human enterprise began inventing synthetic materials that nature never created, we’ve found new and convenient locations in our unseen environment to discard unwanted organic wastes, contaminants, and residues of this material culture; often creating victims of ecosystems through our indifference, which can then mobilise the ‘gunk’ elsewhere. Planetary orbit is yet another expansive, dynamic region with an abundance of isolated and occasionally re-entering hazardous materials and chemical residues (notably, poisonous spacecraft propellants like hydrazine [N2H4], and derivative unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine [UDMH]), some of which are catalogued in the Heritage in Space initiative. Many of the earthly sites, some of which are now approaching a century in age, require extensive remediation operations in order to thereafter safely host local populations – if habitation is even deemed possible again. We are frequently reminded of the sobering quantity of such sites, which remain heavily contaminated and hazardous to those who currently, or wish to still, populate these lands, often through extensive documentation efforts such as the United States’ ‘Superfund: National Priorities List’ remediation programme, and Pure Earth’s (formerly the Blacksmith Institute) now iconic ‘World’s Most Polluted Places’ index; both of which continue to assess many of the post-industrial contaminated ‘brownfield lands’ across the globe.
Several United Nations environmental strategies, for example the Rotterdam Convention (1998), seek to corral responsible management in the usage and trade of hazardous chemicals, with a focus on establishing further legally binding obligations to protect human and environmental health from forseeable harm. Similarly, the Biological Weapons Convention (1975) and Chemical Weapons Convention (1993) have been largely ratified to essentially prohibit biological and chemical toxin development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of these hazardous materials, for global safety from nefarious warfare agents. Much of this international consensus is built upon the earlier Geneva Protocol (1925) but, by no means do these arms control conventions prevent ‘bad faith’ actors from developing hazardous materials such as CBW agents – as seen through the Soviet Union’s covert biological weapons program which actually accelerated after signing the Biological Weapons Convention. Residues of this unauthorised program may still be seen across former Soviet states which played host to bygone armament proving grounds, and hastily convened dumping sites.
Aside from the clearance of unexploded munitions from conflict zones covered under the recent Protocol V addition to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (2003), these international obligations do not redress pre-existing national or local contaminated sites, nor can they prevent the cultural mismanagement of many commercial industries that usually lead to long-term ecological damage. Many commercial sectors are obliged to follow overarching national disposal regulations which can varyingly curtail production operations, but laws and best-practice policies do change over time as emergent environmental pollution is steadily observed. Instances of the latter issue may be understood in context with the submerged DDT graveyards off the coast of Los Angeles (with marine pollution from disposal activities now curtailed by the 1972 London Convention), or the widespread dispersal [or disposal] of agents like dioxins in Rainbow Herbicides and other defoliants across landmasses. The latter pollution can not only be seen in Vietnam, but also in the former Times Beach township. The act of intentionally dumping unregulated industrial waste is, unfortunately, also 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 the 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.
As part of the foundation’s contribution to research within this field, we are compiling a broad survey of hazardous chemical and biological waste disposal sites (including; purposeful isolation depositories, ‘convenient’ dumping sites, contaminated industrial areas, and abandoned facilities 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 will likely remain precarious for ensuing generations, enabling other parties to gradually build upon this catalogue for the benefit of their own remediation 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, audit and demarcate the conditions of various techno-industrial manufacturing sites, national deposition activities, and other unintentionally contaminated landscapes. Some, if not most, of these identified areas require modern site hazard assessments, safety condition checks, or multi-decadal scientific observation, and therefore this archive will remain as a living human document, open to persistent revision and evaluation by expert panels. 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 Bio-Chemical Waste catalogue is consolidated to simply map known geophysical regions with elevated states of contamination from documented anthropogenic sources, with emphasis placed on documenting inheritance from the terminal phases of various bio-chemical disposal strategies, including; isolated deep-geological storage, dumping sites (intentional or otherwise), and occurrences of industrial pollution in disaster zones. Given the obscure history for some of these accounts, their toxin contents, 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. In the case of some security-sensitive sources of bio-chemical materials and active sites, the exact coordinates have been generalised. No independent judgements on defining a permissible dosage (if one can indeed 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: 18 Jan 2022