BIO-CHEMICAL WASTE

 
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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 lurking 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 item 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 netting at quay 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 the discarded object, before gradually 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; material more infamously known 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 beneath the undulating waves; disposal sites for the varied stockpiles of Chemical and Biological Warfare (CBW) agents produced, but never deployed, 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 on what should be done with vast arsenals 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. Many of these substances had been mass-manufactured, alongside stockpiles in 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, stockpiles of CBW were recklessly abandoned across several continents. 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’, in parallel with the UK’s ‘Operation Sandcastle’, and 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. There is also evidence of Nazi Germany pre-dumping munitions in these regions, along with [partially] reported Soviet deposition activities.

Similarly, U.S. dumping operations for confiscated Japanese CBW stockpiles occurred around the island's coastline – despite the majority of these arsenals remaining abandoned in shallow burial pits across Manchuria. In addition to these post-war disposal activities, the U.S. conducted a series of dumping operations off its own shores (for instance, using the S.S. William C. Ralston), before later instigating Operation CHASE (literally; “Cut Holes And Sink ‘Em”) using obsolete vessels again around its own coastline in the late 1960’s. 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, saron, tabun, and other nerve agents were sent to the depths aboard scuttled ships – or loosely thrown overboard during transit to the sanctioned ‘official’ disposal sites – to, in theory, isolate substances 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 these regions of the Baltic Sea, although “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 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. Despite then isolating these agents from human hands, they can remain viable over indeterminate periods of time while awaiting a fateful re-encounter. 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. Despite these analytical troubles, by-product contamination is appearing across distributed populations of these biota. Here, we can readily observe another unfortunate heirloom now manifesting from these ‘isolated’ CBW deposits; lethal contaminants can and often do leak and, therefore, mobilise hazardous toxins elsewhere using established bio-geo-chemical cycles.

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 these CBW materials will likely continue to have an enduring international impact on both human and environmental health; not only through direct vectors for exposure, but also through these substance leaks from disturbed graveyards as regions come into greater conflict with economical ventures and commercial industries at sea. The legacies of CBW 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 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 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 munitions, decades before they were even born to protest against such acts.

The oceans and regional seascapes, despite the 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 CBW waste material management categories.

 

Despite this archaic preference for ocean disposal, terrestrial-based equivalents for CBW agent dumping are also readily encountered today, such as the former Soviet Union’s abandoned Aralsk-7 facility on Vozrozhdeniya Island (a site likely still containing viable specimens of Bacillus anthracis spores, alongside other pathogens), and Leonidovka forest (an unofficial dumpsite for USSR chemical weapon agents), along with the psychological heritage of former testing sites like 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, containing chemical and conventional munitions from both World Wars that have 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 similarly disturbing dumpsites for munitions are still found all over this nation today, and far beyond its borders, but the breadth of these problems remains profoundly unknown without an inventory of where, what, or how CBW agents were discarded. Some hazardous mysteries necessitate ‘rediscovery’ for formal recording and remediation to begin – as with the present situation of Leonidovka forest; the dump locations are narrowed down, but not positively 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 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.

Toxic waste dumpsites, chemical isolation depositories, alongside similar disposal and catastrophe sites, are also readily apparent in every post-industrial nation, including many of the world’s freshwater rivers, lakes, shorelines, and economic marine zones. Some of the more egregious waste disposal practices (intentional or otherwise) that lead to overt chemical pollution often piggyback upon the hydrological cycle through defined waterway ‘utilities’. These utilities include 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 (for instance, Kasadi River through Taloja), sea discharge pipes, and underground streams. Synthetic waste materials and organic contaminants dumped upon land masses through indifference, or to be cheaply ‘isolated’ due to the economic costs associated with proper disposal methods, often filter toxins down through waterways when abandoned without inspection services; creating a successive chain of ecosystem victims, which then naturally mobilise the ‘gunk’ elsewhere. Planetary orbit is yet another expansive, dynamic region with an abundance of transient 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. Most disintegrates during reentry, but toxic substances are seldom discussed in debris mitigation circles, in lieu of more kinetic concerns.

The majority of these growing local and international pollution legacies have the same basic origin features in common. Some of the most glaringly obvious points of contention include: deregulation of essential ecological protection policies over successive governments, or placing this responsibility in waste producers’ hands to ‘self-regulate’; adopting a “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) disposition by shifting waste for deposition elsewhere; a hesitancy in cleaning up others’ messes; in some cases, a lack of identifiable accountability; and also a shortfall of financial investment – the latter of which involves not only diminishing expenditure on proper waste management planning by producers, but also the persistent squeeze placed on governmental authorities charged with regulation and cleanup,“you get the environment you pay for”. 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. This may be seen through extensive documentation efforts such as the United States’ ‘Superfund: National Priorities List’ remediation programme, and Pure Earth’s (formerly Blacksmith Institute) 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 certain hazardous substances, with a focus on establishing further legally binding obligations to protect human and environmental health from foreseeable harm. Similarly in the arena of CBW, both the Biological Weapons Convention (1975) and Chemical Weapons Convention (1993) have been 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. Following these conventions, some federal entities, as in the case of GEKA in Münster, have even 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 (1925) but, by no means, do these arms control conventions prevent ‘bad faith’ actors from developing hazardous substances such as CBW agents – as seen through the Soviet Union’s covert biological weapons program (which accelerated after signing the Biological Weapons Convention), in addition to several contemporary nations who continue to knowingly pursue nerve agent programmes. Residues of the USSR’s Biopreparat programme may still be seen across the former Soviet states which played host to bygone weapon production facilities, proving grounds, and hastily convened dumping sites. Some remnants likely remain amongst the debris on the Kara Sea floor, awaiting a ‘rediscovery’.

 

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), these international obligations do not redress pre-existing 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 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 extinct Times Beach township. 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 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 actions) 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, 'leaks', dumping sites (intentional or otherwise), and occurrences of industrial pollution in disaster zones. 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. 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: 20 Jul 2022