22 June 2021, 10:00


“Some people don’t like change,
but you need to embrace change
if the alternative is disaster.”
Elon Musk

For years, European environmentalists have been expressing concern about the state of the Baltic Sea, one of the most problematic regions on Earth. For the past two centuries, its littoral, densely populated, and highly industrialized countries have either been dumping their industrial and other wastes into the rivers flowing into the Baltic, or directly disposing of them into it. And, until recently, this waste has often not even been treated. As a result, the seawater and its bottom sediments now contain almost all the elements in Mendeleev’s periodic table, including heavy metals and other toxic substances. In the 20th century, the Baltic Sea was the scene of two World Wars, with the remains of hundreds of warships, submarines, merchant and passenger ships complete with torpedo launchers, explosive vaults, holds and tanks containing hundreds of tonnes of ammunition and oil products now resting on its bottom. Tens of thousands of sea mines laid during the preparations for and the conducting of these wars, as well as hundreds of thousands of air bombs and projectiles dropped into the water during the war are still lying at the bottom and in the waters of the Baltic. To this should be added tens of thousands of tonnes of ammunition, including chemical munitions that were sunk deliberately after the end of the hostilities or expiration of their shelf life.

All of this cannot help but affect the flora and fauna of the Baltic Sea, as well as the health of the people living on its shores and in those countries to which seafood is delivered. Over the past few decades, science has made giant strides forward, which makes it possible to take a new look at many processes and situations, comprehend the threats they generate, and try, if not to completely prevent possible damage to the environment, marine creatures, and the life and health of the population living in the region, at least to reduce it to a minimum.

I will try to shed some light on one of the most dangerous legacies of the past—the problem of chemical munitions dumped in the Baltic Sea.

After World War II, the allies acquired 302,875 tonnes of Germany’s chemical munitions containing approximately 66,000 tonnes of 14 different types of toxic substances. They had been stockpiled since World War I, and were not needed during World War II.

Most of the chemical munitions contain yprite, known in Europe as mustard gas. It was nicknamed yprite in 1915, after it was first used by troops near the Ypres River in Belgium. In addition to the above-mentioned mustard gas, the sunken weapons also contain well-known lewisite, sarin, soman, tabun, hydrocyanic acid, Cyclone-B and other toxic substances.

The chemical war trophies gained by the Allies posed a real threat, since the proper conditions necessary for their safe storage were lacking; some of the munitions were depressurized, which required their technological disposal. However, in 1945, a tripartite decision was made by the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Great Britain to dispose of the captured chemical munitions by sinking them in the ocean at a depth of more than 1,000 meters. The decision provided for loading the chemical munitions onto ships that had served their time, towing them to the selected area and sinking them. This was supposed to be the safest, simplest and cheapest way to eliminate the threat posed by some of the most terrible weapons of mass destruction. The deadline for this operation was set for 31 December, 1947. Each of the victorious powers pledged to dispose of all munitions in its zone of occupation. After World War II, the Allied leadership gave the order to sink, according to some sources, 1.9 tons of chemical weapons, according to others – 302 875 tons by the navy north of Iceland in the European Sea, at a depth of approx. 3000 m and at a distance of 300-500 miles. After the war, the Soviet Union, having secured the consent of the Allies, scattered its chemical war booty in the Baltic Sea—5, 000 tonnes were disposed of 70 miles from the port of Liepaja in Latvia and the remaining 30,000 tonnes near the Island of Bornholm in Denmark. The depth of these disposal sites is only 101 to 105 meters. The U.S. and Great Britain also deviated from the original plan and sunk their ships at two sites in the Skagerrak Strait—one 20 miles from the port of Lysekil (Sweden) and the other near the town of Ariendal (Sweden). The depths of the sites are 204-220 meters and 600-700 meters, respectively. There is also information about ships bearing chemical munitions being sunk in the Kattegat Strait and in the Baltic Sea. The exact number of vessels is unknown. According to different sources, it varies from 42 to 65. Taking into consideration the amount of munitions, the latter figure seems more realistic. All the documents classified since the decision was made remain so today. When their 50-year storage period expired in 1997, the U.S. and Britain decided to keep the documents classified for another 20 years, until 2017. At a meeting of the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM), it was decided that the scattered munitions dumped in the Baltic Sea posed no real threat, since they would not depressurize for another ten years, and the sea water would have time to neutralize (due to hydrolysis) any toxic substances that seeped into the sea. Thus, it was believed that if elementary precautionary measures were taken, such as prohibiting bottom trawling and blasting in the mentioned areas, the threat would essentially be reduced to zero. The question appeared to be closed, but... Scientific studies have shown that the situation is not as innocuous as it looks.

Just a few years after World War II, Charlotte Auerbach, an English geneticist of German origin, proved that even microscopic doses of any toxic substances swallowed by a living organism can cause disruption of the genetic code and lead to mutations within 3-4 generations. The minimum permissible concentrations in terms of mutagenesis have not been determined to this day. Even single molecules in a liter of water can theoretically cause mutations. Later, the carcinogenic properties of the toxic substances became known. The studies performed by scientists in different countries have fully confirmed these conclusions. Maximum permissible concentrations were not determined in this case either. Consequently, not only are there no devices capable of detecting single molecules of toxic agents in seafood, there is essentially not even a theoretical possibility of this. Assuming the necessary methods and devices are forthcoming in the foreseeable future, it is essentially impossible to check all the seafood caught for the presence of toxic substances. It should be noted that up to 250,000 - 100,000 tonnes of fish and seafood are produced in the Baltic Sea annually. Another 1,500,000 tonnes are produced in the North Sea, where currents will carry the toxic substances, while fish also migrate in the same direction. A total of up to 2.5 million tonnes of marine products presenting a potential hazard may reach the market, and not only in Europe. Consumption of these products is like playing a game of Russian roulette—now you’re lucky, now you’re not. The average European consumes about 10 kilos of marine products a year. This means that 250,000,000 people will be at risk every year. In addition, toxic substances have the ability to accumulate in living organisms.

Steel corrodes in seawater at a rate of 0.1 - 0.15 mm per year. The walls of the munitions are on average 5-7 mm thick. During the past fifty years, corrosion has thinned the walls of projectiles and bombs to such an extent that in the near future the weight of the upper layers of munitions lying in bulk in the holds of ships will crush the underlying ones, which will cause a peak emission of toxic substances. The sea will be unable to process such a large amount of toxic substances. Slowly dissolving in water, the toxic substances will contaminate vast areas of sea water and the seabed, and end up in the food chains. Plankton easily absorbs toxic substances, undergoes mutations and ends up as food for pelagic fish, which in turn feed carnivorous species, after which these toxins are guaranteed to reach the human table.

Several scientists in Europe have developed a number of unique technologies that make it possible to isolate compact sites of chemical munitions right on the seabed. This method makes it possible to avoid lifting extremely dangerous objects, leave them intact and isolate them on the spot, thus avoiding possible accidents during the operation. Unfortunately, a huge number of bureaucratic obstacles stand in the way of these proposals, which means that by the time the operation is approved, it will be too late—the toxic substances will have already contaminated the sea. However, avoiding this issue will have not only political, but also economic consequences. Elementary estimates show that the financial losses accrued by the cutback in fishing and related industries of the regional countries and tourist business could reach 12-15 billion euros a year. Up to 40-42% of the gross national product of such countries as Denmark and Sweden may suffer as a result of the forthcoming peak emission of toxic substances, since if this happens the only plausible solution to the situation is imposing a complete ban on the production of seafood. While it is still possible to try and prevent the emission of toxic substances into the sea, it will be virtually impossible to eliminate the consequences of this emission.

Sweden kindly granted Russian scientists not only permission to work around the major fishing port of Lysekil, but also gave them the coordinates of several vessels with chemical munitions on board scouted by the Swedish Navy in 1991-1992. Within two days, six sunken vessels were found, dozens of water and sediment samples taken, and a hydrological survey of the area conducted. The results of the analyses showed that toxic substances had probably been in the water and deposited on the bottom for a long time, and traces of mustard gas and lewisite were found up to half a nautical mile away from the vessels. The amount of arsenic was 60-200-times higher than the background level, but the peak emission of toxic agents had most likely not yet occurred, which gave rise to a certain amount of hope.

However, this most urgent topic was never discussed again.

In 1998, 17 sites were discovered in the same region near Lysekil, followed in 2000 by the discovery of another 27 ships and dozens of their fragments spread over an area of 3 square kilometers. Hundreds of sediment and water samples showed the presence of toxic substances and their traces from a depth of 40 meters right down to the sea bottom (204-208 meters), as well as in the seabed itself. In 2000, an international expedition of German specialists and technicians carried out the first underwater survey of a vessel bearing chemical munitions in this region. They took photographs of decks destroyed by explosions, torn-off hatch covers, mangled superstructures and a large amount of marine creatures—shrimp, fish, crabs, mollusks, anemones, sea worms, as well as toxic substances galore. In 2000, sarin was first found at three sites in this dumping ground. Taking into account that it only takes it about two days to degrade in water, it must be assumed that containers or munitions containing sarin were leaking near the research vessel Professor Shtokman, with its international crew on board. At the same time, dozens of vessels were engaged in intensive fishing in the area.

While research was going on in the Skagerrak Strait, Europeans witnessed joint exercises of NATO navies, during which live firing was carried out in an area of the sea, on the bottom of which ships with holds full of chemical munitions lay.

In the late 1990s, a sensational incident covered in the media occurred in the same area when, during more exercises, an depth bomb was dropped over the side of a Danish destroyer; however, fortunately, it did not explode. The scandal was quickly hushed up, but the bomb was never found.

The most alarming discoveries were made in 2000 and 2001, when, first, one large ship was found near Bornholm Island (Denmark), then two more ships were discovered in the same area a year later. And again the international expedition on the same Professor Shtokman photographed ships at a depth of 105 meters with decks destroyed by explosions, torn-off hatch covers and mangled superstructures. It is particularly worth noting that the superstructures of the vessels were entangled in an abundance of fishing nets of all colors and sizes. In the dim light of underwater searchlights, TV cameras impassively filmed holds full of projectiles and air bombs. Water and sediment analyses revealed a wide range of toxic substances oozing from the corroded munitions. In some places, the concentration of arsenic in the sediment was as much as 3 grams per kilogram. A fourth vessel, the last one so far, was discovered in the summer of 2006. These operations are far from safe. Despite all precautions, there were cases when the scientists on board Professor Shtokman were affected by the toxic substances and only timely qualified medical care prevented severe consequences. However, no one can guarantee that they, or their descendants, will not suffer long-term consequences.

In the same 2000, scientists discovered that up to 60% of biota had signs of mutations. Around the same time, there were reports of a dramatic increase in childhood cancer in the littoral countries.

The discovery of compact dumping sites in the Baltic Sea fundamentally changes the situation and forces us to reconsider the complacent conclusions of the Helsinki Commission. In addition, they confirm the testimony of Peter Günter, a former prisoner of war, who the British, among others, recruited to sink the lethal ships. According to Günter’s testimony, Britain called for six ships with chemical munitions on board to be sunk near Bornholm, so we can expect to find at least two more ships in the same area. A peak emission of toxic substances in the shallow Baltic Sea, where there is almost no water exchange (a complete exchange of water takes 27 to 30 years), could lead to an environmental disaster, while the regional countries are certain to experience an economic disaster.

I would like to remind readers of the losses suffered by the British economy due to the mad cow disease. The direct losses alone, according to the press, reached an astronomical sum of 2.4 billion pounds sterling. Britain lost about the same amount on futures contracts. And that is assuming there are reliable methods of identifying the disease and preventing contaminated beef from reaching the human table.

In the case of toxic substances, this will not be possible. Panic in the seafood market will do the trick. And while the mad cow disease epidemic was localized and eliminated within a few months, pollution of the Baltic Sea, the straits and the North Sea will continue for dozens of years. No one can say exactly when the waters of these seas will be inhabited once more by creatures harmless to humans.

An international team of ocean scientists discovered another effect that greatly complicates the situation. It turns out that every three to four years, a so-called massive inundation occurs, when significantly larger masses of water flow into the Baltic Sea from the North Sea than in normal years. A shaft (tongue) of cold water from the North Sea moving along the bottom of the Skagerrak and Kattegat straits rakes up and carries benthic water and mud, including toxic substances from the Ariendal and Lysekil dumps, into the Baltic Sea, as though on a bulldozer shovel that spreads it further along the bottom of the Baltic Sea, in so doing, agitating and churning up its bottom waters, where toxic substances from the Bornholm and Liepaja dumps are accumulated.

Possible complications in the region in light of 9/11 should be especially emphasized. It will not be difficult for terrorists who have decided to bring the governments of certain countries in the region to their knees to carry out serious attacks. They could easily detonate one or more ships with chemical munitions on board. A depth bomb could be dropped from any passing yacht, boat, or cargo ship. It is not even necessary to carry out a targeted strike. The hydraulic impact caused by an explosion in the close vicinity would result in the destruction of the corroded casings of the munitions, along with a peak emission of the chemical warfare agents they contain, with all the ensuing (both literally and figuratively) consequences.

Paradoxically, terrorists would not even need to mine the sunken vessels. It would be enough to report that a remote-controlled bomb had been planted on one or several ships in order to carry out chemical blackmail of the regional countries, because it would be essentially impossible to check whether this information were true.

I would like to inform you that we have the technology to fill ships bearing chemical munitions with a special harmless substance. This operation, which turns vessels with chemical munitions on board into monoblocks containing embedded munitions, solves the problem in a comprehensive way. First, the projectiles are isolated from the water, which reduces their corrosion rate by orders of magnitude; second, the rigid construction will prevent overlying projectiles to press down on those lying beneath them; third, after the projectile casings decompose, the toxic substances they contain will remain in separate vaults and not leak into the environment or seep in negligible quantities through microcracks; and finally, even if hypothetical terrorists bombard this kind of monoblock with depth bombs, they will not cause any significant pollution of the environment.

According to our estimates, the entire operation will take 4-5 years and will cost 4-5 billion Euros, which is equivalent to the losses the regional countries will incur during the first 3-4 months after the peak emission of toxic substances occurs.

The isolation of dozens of ships will require the joint participation of every country capable of performing submarine engineering work, primarily, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and Great Britain, in order to complete this work before disaster strikes. We can only hazard a guess as to how much time remains before toxic substances are released en masse into the water. According to my estimates, we have about 5 years, according to the more pessimistic forecasts of some specialists, we have only 2-3 years, but, frankly speaking, no one can guarantee that this peak emission did not occur immediately after the last expedition, or is not taking place right now.

We are facing a catastrophic situation, which must be resolved en masse, as they say. It is criminal to withhold this information from one’s own people. I am not an expert on national legislation in the Baltic region, but I believe it is criminal to do nothing even if only one person is threatened, never mind when the health of hundreds of millions of Europeans and their descendants is at stake.

Clearing the bottom of the Baltic Sea of explosive and environmentally hazardous objects is becoming an increasingly urgent task in light of building the second branch of the North-European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) and requires comprehensive efforts to search for, identify and neutralize vessels detected along the NEGP route. This is primarily required to prevent accidents involving the crew of the vessels engaged in laying the NEGP. In this case, scattered chemical munitions, and not just their compact dumps, also pose a serious threat.

It is the compact dumps of chemical munitions that will cause the greatest problems. As mentioned above, it is inadvisable, to put it mildly, to raise the chemical munitions from the seabed and transport them to destruction sites. Sealing each individual projectile containing chemical agents directly on the seabed is a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. It will be almost impossible to distinguish a corroded munition with no visible markings under water by its appearance alone. True, our latest technologies make it possible to resolve this problem, but it is also vital to ensure safe operation of the Northern European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) and other underwater communications, especially with regard to a terrorist threat. Ensuring the safety of a pipeline that runs along the bottom of the shallow Baltic Sea against terrorist attacks is an almost insurmountable task. Terrorists could blow up the pipeline with minimal technical effort and negligible economic costs. Even with ultra-modern detection systems, we can at best only be passive observers of the damage or destruction caused by objects approaching the pipeline, since there will be no time to send a task force and equipment to the attack site.

And there is another problem that became clear only a few months ago.

According to some experts, one of the theories explaining the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is that crossbreeding occurred between an ordinary virus and the Synthia bacterium created to destroy the oil spilled as a result of the technological accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2009. It is not difficult to imagine what kind of monster could be produced as a result of crossbreeding an ordinary virus or bacterium with microorganisms mutated as a result of chemical warfare exposure in the Baltic Sea. No one, even the most competent epidemiologist, can predict what the next pandemic will be and how to deal with it.

For 25 years, scientists have been persuading European politicians from the highest tribunes to join efforts to demilitarize the Baltic Sea regarding chemical munitions. They have been shouting, “Changes on the seabed are inevitable! If no action is taken, it will be a DISASTER!” But the four countries that dumped the chemical munitions have supported and continue to support a conspiracy of silence in every way they can.

The coronavirus situation has shown that it is much easier to prevent a disaster than to eliminate its consequences with heroic efforts and enormous expenses.

Once again, I appeal to the governments and people of all the Baltic countries to unite their efforts and financial and technical capabilities to prevent an environmental and financial catastrophe in the region. I suggest that we start with what I consider the most dangerous disposal sites in the shallow, insular waters of the Baltic Sea. Six ships bearing chemical munitions in Danish waters are posing a greater threat to Europe and humanity than a flock of Chinese bats. It will be relatively inexpensive to clarify the situation in the Baltic Sea and carry out the preparations for resolving the problem as a whole. This can be done by hiring a well-equipped research vessel (R/V) and recruiting highly qualified specialists to carry out the operation and process the obtained data. With the necessary budget, we could immediately begin a thorough survey of the Baltic Sea, create electronic passports for each of the four vessels on the seabed near the island of Bornholm and search for the other two, still undiscovered, vessels with chemical munitions on board in the same area. This will include carrying out a number of research studies to determine the state of each vessel after it hit the seabed, including so-called hazard weighting, the degree of corrosion of the hull, the state of the cargo, the degree of cargo corrosion and destruction, sediment sampling, analyses to determine its chemical warfare content, water sampling and analysis at the site of the vessel, and detection of signs of peak emission. Once we have the abovementioned data, I and my colleagues from four European countries can draw up individual projects for isolating a particular vessel on the seabed and join efforts to implement them, thus significantly reducing any possible catastrophic development of events. Our experience can then be extended to the straits and the North Sea, and further on around the world.

It seems to us that the most concerned countries (Sweden and Denmark)—innocent victims of the circumstances—could come up with an appropriate initiative, and the European Union could allocate the necessary amount from the funds reserved for resolving environmental problems.

Currently, there is a lot of gossip and speculation about the Baltic Sea and the chemical munitions on its bed. Completely incompetent people, who are trying to achieve short-term goals, often well-paid, and pursuing political interests, are trying to gain various benefits. For example, they are attempting to ensure a branch is built from the underwater gas pipeline to their own country or gain some mythical compensation for the damage inflicted upon the inhabitants of the region. The repeated appeals from our scientists to join efforts and resources to solve this urgent problem and declassify the documents that reveal the chemical munitions disposal sites, their size and condition fall on deaf ears. Russia declassified all its information regarding the chemical weapon dumps in the Baltic Sea as early as 1991, but the U.S. and Great Britain are ignoring the appeals to publically declassify information regarding their chemical weapon disposal sites.

Over the last 35 years, there have been repeated official and unofficial international meetings, at which scientists discussed the urgent topic of European security (Oslo—1997, Stockholm—1998-1999, Moscow—1992-2017, Berlin—2007, and Kaliningrad—1998, 2000, 2002, 2009, and 2021).

Military expert Peter Mueller, lawyer Manfred Beze, and doctor Anna Skrobot from Germany; President of the World Ocean International Fund, doctor and professor Tengiz Borisov, who headed the international search expeditions to locate the mass disposal sites of chemical munitions, from Russia; President of the Clean Baltic Sea Independent International Fund, doctor and professor Arnold Pork, and psychologist Leivi Sher from Estonia; Deni Nikaev from Lithuania, as well as scientists from Belgium, Great Britain, Holland, Sweden, etc. have been addressing this question for decades. The release of toxic substances into the aquatic environment is irreversible!

It is time to reveal the indefatigable threat posed by this problem. Tomorrow will be too late. The phrase “our descendents will not forgive us” is no longer appropriate. There will be no healthy descendants left in Europe or Russia. An international working group must urgently be created for organizing work on the proposed technology and carrying out safe disposal of this contamination based on the available data about the volumes and types of chemical munitions lying on the bottom of the Baltic Sea and other places in the world’s oceans.

It stands to reason that this problem can only be solved if the heads of states concerned allocate the necessary funds, provide experts and accept our unique technology.

While Germany has invested 12 billion euros in military operations in Afghanistan, some 7,000 kilometers away, in recent years, I hope we can organize a meeting within the EU to address the problem of security of our German European shores, our common European home.

I want to make it perfectly clear that my international team of scientists, technologists, and experts, who are patriots of their countries, are ready to take part in and immediately begin implementing this project.

The man-made Baltic tragedy is a transatlantic problem, because the World Ocean is a single water body, and what happens in the Baltic Sea will cascade in chain order through its straits, the Gulf Stream and on into the World Ocean to create a threat to all of Humanity!

Dr. Alexander Potemkin,

Karl-Heinz Drewes,

Potemkin Alexander

Cofounder of the planetary environmental Hamburg Club, Hamburg

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