Consolidating an inventory of the often obscure ecological 'timebombs' and other less-conspicuous toxic legacies – preserving crucial documentation about these poisons residing far 'out of sight' and sometimes 'out of mind', for the benefit of informing those who will one day inherit these hazardous 'wells'.
ABOUT 'POISONED WELLS'
On the 9th of April 1940, a German invasion fleet led by the heavy Cruiser Blücher powered its way through the Drøbak Sound with the crucial objective of seizing control of the Norwegian capital and capturing King Haakon VII, along with his still officially neutral government. A heavily armed cruiser which could easily outmatch anything available in the Norwegian Navy at the time, the Blücher was a major technological leap ahead of the outdated armoured warfare designs of Dreadnought-class battleships that had long conquered the seas. This domineering cruiser was also brazenly built as a direct repudiation to the Treaty of Versailles, ensuring Germany could impose its dominance across the global stage following nearly two decades of disarmament, harsh austerity, and punitive reparations which had led to the Weimar Republic’s downfall and replacement with the Nazi regime. Blücher’s first commissioned assignment was to ensure the rapid subjugation of this Nordic country, and strike fear into the hearts and minds of the populace. History, however, played out differently.
While the invasion force passed the ageing and considered obsolete gun batteries stationed at Oscarsborg Fortress, the Norwegian colonel Birger Eriksen ordered his 30 untrained recruits manning the fort’s various batteries to fire upon the cruiser. His reasoning was simple; the unannounced fleet had already passed two fortresses further South in the Oslo Fjord, likely, as later confirmed in disrupted communications, ‘by force’. His order prompted two 28cm shells to puncture holes through several of Blücher’s vital systems – shots that also caused fires to break out across its decks. Further barrages of 15 cm and 57 mm shells knocked out the Blücher’s fire suppression and steering systems, forcing the crew to resort to improvised methods to maintain limited control over their stricken vessel. Only when the men in the fortress heard the Blücher crew singing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’ did they learn who these intruders were. The ship was temporarily crippled by this surprise attack, but still very much a terrifying asset in the Kriegsmarine (Nazi Navy) which could still unleash harm further down the Fjord. However, as the ship slid by the sights of the acting commander Andreas Anderssen (a retired officer, just filling in as sick cover), he gave the order to fire the secret torpedo battery installed underneath the fortress – sending two lethal projectiles from their underwater tunnels towards the burning battleship. After drifting beyond the fort’s range and suffering further catastrophic fires and exploding munitions in its holds, the Blücher gradually began listing over onto her port side before capsizing and then sinking less than two hours later; a naval calamity which only delayed the German seizure of Oslo by mere hours (by the German land forces). Nevertheless, this brief delay afforded officials crucial time to continue the defence of Norway, move the nation’s gold reserves, and later evacuate to set up a government in exile in the United Kingdom.
The physical threat posed by the Blücher may have been neutralised on the 9th of April 1940 but the shipwreck, still lying at a depth of 64 metres, continues to exert a sinister influence over the local population decades later. At the time of its sinking, the ship held [under] 2,670 cubic metres of fuel in about 180 separate storage tanks. Some oil was spent during transit from Kiel to the Oslofjord coast, while some burned as the besieged cruiser capsized and plummeted to its shallow Nordic grave. This marine diesel, likely also used in the rest of the Kriegsmarine military fleets, is also unique in composition. It has a heavier consistency, owing to the manufacturing process used when extracting fuel from coal deposits, rather than refining crude from oil fields (with wartime shortages, the latter option was unavailable to the German state). Moreover, this synthetic coal-crude is highly toxic, and now consistently leaking as more fissures open across the corroding wreck; presenting a ticking ‘ecological timebomb’ for the Norwegian government to diffuse in order to safeguard the fragile Oslofjord ecosystem.
The short-term benefits of sinking the vessel were immediately apparent during the wartime era, yet crucial scientific investigations to explore this obscure wreck were now beginning to shed light upon this newly unfolding environmental tragedy lurking beneath the Fjord’s renewed tranquil waters. As a result of these exploratory studies, in 1994 an American company Rockwater AS, together with deep-sea divers, began drilling holes to extract the ecological threat one fuel tank at a time. After completion of the contract, 133 storage tanks had been successfully drained and 1,000 short tons of oil safely removed, but this operation was unable to access the remaining 47 fuel bunkers which still hold an unknown quantity of oil today. To complicate remediation further, the Blücher wreck has now gained a protective war memorial status [as of 16th June 2016], given the still unknown loss of human life during its sinking, thus limiting the extent of further exploratory and remedial activities which may be employed to end the menace still posed by Blücher’s presence in Oslofjord’s waters.
The Blücher is not the only shipwreck to hold this hazardous ‘ecological timebomb’ status, but it is emblematic of this category given its proximity to the surface, and the growing commercial and tourism sectors now flourishing across the affected Fjord. The North and Baltic Seas possess many similar underwater ship graveyards that often leak ‘black tears’ into the surrounding water column as seen through the efforts of the European North Sea Wrecks Project which monitor wreck sites and the iridescent pools they now weep to the surface as a gentle reminder of the unfolding ecological tragedy below. Today, it is estimated that thousands of other sunken shipwrecks lying across the global seabeds hold about 3–25 million tonnes of oil. Many of these wrecks occurred as a result of the skirmishes and resource-denial tactics in World War II during the early 1940s, but we are now only beginning to see the consequences of decades of wreck deterioration within salt water. As a generally accepted rule for the rate of corrosion, steel plates lose between 0.1–0.2mm thickness per year, severely weakening the structural integrity of wrecks and their now delicate fuel tanks, bulkheads, munition stores and protective hulls – hence the ‘ecological timebomb’ designation. It is only a matter of when not if integrity finally fails, releasing their toxic black shrouds upon unsuspecting marine and coastline ecosystems. Norway has preempted this predicted structural failure by pumping as much as possible from the still-stable sunken vessels, while other nations choose to wait and monitor nearby wrecks at the same time as planning for mitigation efforts after an inevitable release.
Fuel leaks from these ageing Nazi wrecks and other wartime ships, however, are not the only lurking material legacy that possess profound ecological hazards in these regions. Another infamous type of ‘ecological timebomb’ may be found in the remnants of the German submarine U-864. Here, we are presented with a different hazardous material legacy and environmental consequences from actions during World War II; widespread mercury poisoning. U-864’s last mission was to transport advanced technologies to their Axis Power ally Imperial Japan. However, on the 9th of February 1945 the British submarine HMS Venturer, acting upon intercepted communications, managed to torpedo this vessel after briefly stalking it. This act sent all 73 souls [including Nazi and Japanese scientists], advanced Messerschmitt jet engine parts, V-2 missile guidance systems, and other secondary cargo including approximately 67 short tons of metallic mercury in 1,857 32 kg steel flasks stored in her keel to the depths near Fedje Island. Surveys carried out since the wreck of U-864 was rediscovered in March 2003 by the Royal Norwegian Navy found still full flasks, but also elevated concentrations of mercury in the sediments and water column around U-864’s resting place. These poisons are now leaching out, raising the alarm for heightened mercury levels in resident biota, and thus bioaccumulation across established Nordic food webs. As a result, the Norwegian Government has banned fishing in the area, and is now in the early stages of planning to entomb the wreck in a sediment sarcophagus to avert a wider release of mercury which may severely impact nature, as well as damage the reputation of its local fishing industry. This ‘entombing’ still needs to be implemented.
Yet another type of submersed threat which ascribes to this ‘ecological timebomb’ status from World War II can be found in a German Trawler that, in 1939, had been requisitioned for the Kriegsmarine; the John Mahn (V 1302). Here, we can see another variety of risk secreted beneath the waters of the North Sea; an explosive legacy. In 1942 during the ‘Channel Dash’ (or ‘Operation Cerberus’), the John Mahn was riddled with machine gun fire and RAF bombs which caused the vessel to sink on the 12th of February in water as shallow as 35m [off of Belgium]. Subsequent investigations of the wreck and nearby sediment reveal the presence of nickel, copper, arsenic, explosives, and hazardous chemicals found in fossil fuels known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (or PAHs) slowly diffusing throughout the microbial ecology. As poignantly remarked by Madison Goldberg; ‘None of these are things you want at the bottom of the ocean’, yet the shipwreck also contains multiple unexploded depth charges on board which render the shipwreck hazardous and, therefore, gravely hinder clean-up tasks. Nazi Germany, of course, was also not the only nation to deploy naval military assets during the war, with thousands of vessels from both sides of the global conflict now littering the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean floors. It is unknown how many sunk and scuttled vessels hold munitions now teetering on the edge of a spontaneous or accidental denotation, yet the loss of dumping records only complicates our unfolding predicament, and any prospective clean-up decisions that may be made.
Lessons gleaned during the ‘clean-up’ of the S.S. Kielce on the 22nd of July 1967 underscored just how volatile munitions may become underwater as components corrode to the precarious point of detonation. The S.S. Kielce accidentally exploded with a force equivalent to an earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale, digging a 6-metre crater in the seabed, while causing damage and panic in the nearby English seaside town of Folkestone. Today, a more emblematic example of the threat still posed by (lost, sunken, or scuttled) munition-laden wrecks can be observed with the S.S. Richard Montgomery – an American Liberty-class ship resting at a precarious depth of only 15 metres in the Thames Estuary. Despite a hasty salvage operation undertaken on the 23rd August 1944 (3 days after running aground on a sandbank), it is still estimated to hold about 1,400 short tons of TNT in bombs (much more than S.S. Kielce) which may someday explode spontaneously. According to a BBC report on these risks, an eventual ‘Detonation-Day’ would throw a 1,000-foot-wide column of water and debris about 10,000 feet into the air and generate a localised 16 foot-high tidal wave. When this will occur remains to be seen, but with each passing day the deteriorating wreck becomes much more unstable, demonstrating how the passage of time further complicates these issues when left exposed to the forces of nature. This philosophical attitude of ‘wait and see’ given the dangers some of these wrecks now pose to remediation operations is a risk some authorities are willing to accept, while other state parties choose to take preemptive salvage action to avoid or control the ecological fallout. Whomever is responsible for these ‘poisoned wells’ is beyond the scope of our archival programme however, and needless to say, the sensitivities surrounding these debates over state ownership, liability, legal commitments, and the extent of unsettled clean-up costs must be resolved as a matter of urgency between relevant parties, should we wish to diffuse these poisons in our collective wells.
Shifting focus away from marine habitats, there are also other sub-terrestrial ‘poisoned wells’ which seldom receive appropriate attention by government environmental authorities or policies designed to protect our ecological ‘commons’. Perhaps the lowest hanging poisonous fruit for this type of toxic legacy may be found in the various subterranean coal seam fires that branch out underneath our unassuming landscapes; emitting hazardous vapours and other chemical pollutants that degrade both air and groundwater quality over decades or longer. The most infamous example of this latent complexity may be found in the often sensationalist reports concerning Centralia – a near-ghost town in Pennsylvania that has mostly been abandoned due to underground fires smouldering throughout the region's coal seams since about May 1962, with an estimated lifespan of another 250 years. Centralia is not an isolated incident across the Pennsylvania–Ohio–Kentucky–Colorado coal seams, with a number of other durational colliery fires readily documented across Pennsylvania alone. For instance, the nearby Laurel Run fire has been smouldering underground since about 1915 after a miner accidentally ignited the coal seam with a lantern. As remediation operations at Centralia prove, extinguishing pervasive colliery fires is not an easy task, with most just abandoned by stakeholders to simply ‘burn out’. Moreover, preliminary investigations – most of which rely upon remote satellite observations – reveal that the other major coal-producing countries like Indonesia, China, and India also possess extensive coal seam fires (and likely longer histories therein), but here we observe an unfortunate truth in this ecologically-conscious age. Some nations downplay the scope of disasters, or even intentionally conceal problems in an attempt to avert criticism of their environmental commitments. Without transparency and any formal acknowledgement by state signatories to global environmental accords, it is difficult if not impossible to counteract such enduring ecological hazards in our age, much less reliably document the unseen poisons secreted in wells far beneath our feet; toxics which may soon be unleashed.
Sometimes, defunct mining tunnels have also been used as convenient disposal sites for hazardous and toxic legacies, presenting another dimension to our understanding of committing poison ‘into the well’. But what is placed ‘out of sight’ tends not to always remain ‘out of mind’. To briefly touch upon this complexity, we may see how this saga of mine disposal operations is now playing out with varying reactions across modern day Germany. As an example of the challenges faced by erstwhile planning, Germany is now reckoning with the re-discovery of ‘non-mining residues’ that had been steadily deposited down old mine shafts by predecessor national and local governments; authorities which, essentially, used abandoned subterranean cavities as ‘underground landfills’. Some of these disposal practices involve the deposition of radiological materials in mines like Asse II and Morsleben, which are documented elsewhere in the After the Horizon programme, while other examples include liquid waste from Volkswagen (Thiederhall potash plant) and other industrial sources. Naturally, the discovery of these ‘poisoned wells’ has led to protests by locals who may have had no foreknowledge or ‘say’ over these acts committed by prior generations. Due to these local environmental concerns, some of these mines are now subject to extensive excavation efforts and alternative waste treatment practices to fix problems from the past before they can cause lasting, unwanted ecological damages, whilst newer subterranean facilities are also prepared to replace these ill-designed deposition sites.
Elsewhere within Germany’s borders, we can see how regional authorities have chosen to pioneer a more respectable model for future hazardous waste internment within subterranean cavities; the Herfa-Neurode underground landfill. Located in Heringen (Hesse) within segments of an active Werra potash mine that have fallen out of productive use, this facility (as of 2010) stores hazardous [Class IV] chemical materials including about 690,000 tonnes of dioxin and furan-containing waste, 220,000 tonnes of mercury-containing waste, 127,000 tonnes of cyanide-containing waste and 83,000 tonnes of arsenic-containing toxic waste, all at a depth of about 700–750 metres beneath the surface. Wastes are dry-stored in packaging receptacles like barrels and durable bags to prevent leakages from ever happening, and thereafter sorted into separate groups of substances in order to prevent dangerous reactions of different substances, before each is sealed in annexes off the main tunnels. Unlike the prior deposition facilities however, some waste is placed in ‘interim storage’ until current methods of recycling can successfully reprocess or reuse any exhume-able materials. This ‘well’ also actively contributes to the advancement of industry safety protocols and appropriate precautions useful for the development of future subterranean facilities, and also hosts a small ‘sample library’ to aid in documenting the interred materials buried since the underground landfill was set up in 1972.
As part of the After the Horizon programme, the foundation is committed to seeking out the range of unseen, less-conspicuous environmental hazards that often go under-reported when balanced against the broad range of more prominent toxic waste dumpsites, and chemical isolation depositories, alongside similar disposal and catastrophe sites that are hallmarks of the 20th and 21st Centuries. The more conspicuous sites are already being recorded by pioneering inter/national agencies such as the United States’ ‘Superfund: National Priorities List’ remediation programme, and Pure Earth’s (formerly the Blacksmith Institute) iconic ‘World’s Most Polluted Places’ index and clean-up operations. As an example of our archival focus, the mile-long ‘Berkeley Pit’ is a much more visible manifestation of what is generally classified as ‘pollution’ and an ‘environmental hazard’, yet the 87 shipwrecks scattered around the United States’ coasts which pose a substantial oil pollution threat, as identified by NOAA’s RULET database, receive comparatively less attention.
Both the Superfund and Pure Earth programmes continue to identify and, more importantly, scientifically examine the many post-industrial contaminated ‘brownfield lands’ and ‘sacrifice zones’ scattered across the United States and globe respectively, yet ‘ecological timebombs’ shipwrecks,
and similar hazardous underground sites – the varying ‘Poisoned Well’ legacies – sometimes fall between the cracks of documentation campaigns. More often than not, this is due to the unique circumstances of such legacies. Pollution that remains visibly ‘out of sight’ in isolated locations is easy to simply ignore for now. Sometimes, these wastes also remain ‘out of mind’ given state obligations to clean up unseen shipwreck hazards occupies a legal grey area in most international sea conventions. Yet another identifiable example of these hidden ‘well’ legacies which often falls outside of mainstream pollution literature and global legislative efforts, is planetary orbit; an expansive, dynamic region with an abundance of transient and occasionally re-entering hazardous materials and chemical residues (notably, poisonous spacecraft propellants; hydrazine [N2H4], and derivative unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine [UDMH]). Outer space challenges us to recalibrate our dimensional perception of where ‘wells’ may now reside in the Anthropocene, but the historic profile of the Space Age presents us with troves of documentation to speculate about these understudied toxic legacies, with some of these materials already documented within our Space Heritage initiative. Most of this matter disintegrates during reentry, but toxic substances are seldom discussed within debris mitigation circles (in lieu of more kinetic concerns), in addition to the fuel residue scattered across various national launch facilities because of intermittent rocket failures.
Notes to catalogue: The intent of this ‘Poisoned Wells’ catalogue is to document the often unseen sources of pollution which will likely have an imminent and growing impact upon the unfolding environment(s) of inheriting generations. Given the obscure histories for some of these identifiable sites, lack or obscured status of unfolding problems by local authorities, un/known toxicity profiles, 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 assessments on defining a permissible dosage for any substances (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. While the purpose of this index is to chronicle these hidden legacies, and preserve adequate documentation related to these ‘wells’, it is recognised that there will inevitably be overlaps with other mainstream record retention efforts. It is hoped that any such crossovers will mutually benefit these programmes, reinforcing known accounts, and provide further corroborating evidence useful for those who will one day inherit these legacies. The entire catalogue remains an active document, subject to updates, amendments, and further phases of peer-review.
Page last updated: 03 Jun 2023