Poison gas dumped in Baltic Sea

Issue 

Copenhagen — German authorities, sifting through millions of records in Stasi (security police) archives, have uncovered evidence that East Germany in the past dumped massive amounts of poisonous gases in the Baltic Sea.

"The German environmental authorities have confirmed that they have turned up papers showing that East Germany dumped poison gas in an area off [the Danish island of] Bornholm up until 1967", said Danish Environment Council chair Filip Facius on February 27.

"We are expecting an answer from the German Foreign Ministry in the next couple of days as to the precise details", Facius added.

Almost every year since World War II, Danish fishermen have reported catches of poison gas grenades and shells in their nets in various known dumping grounds in the Baltic Sea and the Danish straits.

Up to 300,000 tons of poison gas and ammunition, as well as some nerve gas, was dumped by Germany, Britain and the Soviet Union in four main sea dumping grounds around Danish waters. The dumping, however, was previously believed to have ended in 1948.

"But a file was found in the archives showing that East German dumping, in fact, went on for many years after that", Facius said.

Two months ago, the archives of the Stasi were opened to public scrutiny. The archives contain the equivalent of 200 km of documentation and the private dossiers of 6 million people.

Earlier in February, Facius approached German environment authorities at a meeting of the Helsinki Commission. At the time, he said, German officials had confirmed they were investigating the dumping issue.

"We have not yet received the answer, but have been told that it is in the process of being transmitted from the German Foreign Ministry", Facius said.

German foreign minister Gerhard Stoltenberg on February 26 denied Danish media reports that his ministry would undertake the expensive job of raising and destroying the hundreds of thousands of tons of ammunition.

Facius added that it was not yet quite clear whether the gaseous explosives, which includes most types of toxic gas grenades, had had any serious effect on the marine

environment.

Tests carried out in 1985 by Danish scientists were unable to detect if the marine environment had been affected.

"We do know that some of the bombs and grenades have been rusting for some time and their contents have seeped into the sea. We also know that most of these compounds break down relatively quickly in sea water", Facius added.

But even if there has been no noticeable effect on the environment, it has certainly caused human suffering.

A major investigation of the dumping issue was ordered in 1985 when three Faroese fishermen were severely burned after catching two mustard gas bombs in their nets. Other Danish fishermen have complained of suffering similar burns during the past two decades.

"Danish fishermen pull up about 2500 tons of this material each year", Facius estimated, adding, "We have now introduced some very strict cleaning requirements for those trawlers which do snarl poison gas."

The main dumping grounds known to authorities before the recent Stasi discovery were around Gotland and Bornholm in the Baltic Sea; in the Little Belt at the mouth of the sea; in the Skagerrak; and near the Danish Great Belt island of Aeroe.

According to official Danish reports, the Soviet Union dumped some 50,000 tons of gas ammunition off Gotland and Bornholm after the end of World War II. This was in addition to some 200 tons of pure gas.

Germany was previously known to have dumped gas material and ammunition in the Little Belt just before the end of the war. This included 500 tons of nerve and mustard gases, as well as canisters of untreated chemicals.

At the end of the war Britain too sank some 34 ships filled with 152,000 tons of gas and conventional ammunition at a depth of 650 metres in the Skagerrak waterway at the mouth of the North Sea.

Previous plans to raise and destroy the ammunition and gas have not been followed through due to an apparent unwillingness on the part of Baltic Sea nations to fund the removal of the ammunition from the water.
[Inter Press Service/Pegasus]

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