Baltic sea a ‘ticking bomb’ climate conference warns as eco experts urge action to remove tonnes of hazardous waste from seabed

Though the exact figure remains unknown, it is thought that anything between 40,000 tonnes to 100,000 tonnes of potential pollutants could lie at the bottom of the Baltic, including mines, barrels of chemical waste, and bombs.(Illustration picture) Poelzer Wolfgang/PAP/Alamy

With WWII shipwrecks already leaking chemical pollutants into the ocean, a climate conference in Gdynia has described the Baltic Sea as “a ticking time bomb” that threatens an ecological catastrophe should warnings continue to go unheeded.

Held in the Gdynia City Museum, the meeting was attended by, among others, leading scientists and government authorities including the Deputy Marshal of the Senate Gabriela Morawska-Stanecka, the Marshal of the Pomeranian Voivodeship Mieczysław Struk and Gdynia’s vice-president for innovation Michał Guć.

Approximately 600 wrecks dot Poland’s maritime waters, of which around 20 are considered an environmental risk.Marcin Bielecki/PAP

Addressing attendees, Guć said: “We are sitting on a ticking time bomb – we need to take care of this problem, not just talk about it.”

Though the exact figure remains unknown, it is thought that anything between 40,000 tonnes to 100,000 tonnes of potential pollutants could lie at the bottom of the Baltic, including mines, barrels of chemical waste, and bombs.

According to the historical information available, sulfur mustard is the most abundant chemical warfare agent in the dumped munitions. This chemical agent poses a risk to humans who come into contact with it, and to organisms within its immediate vicinity, taking into account both short- and long-term effects.Helcom

Although not a problem exclusive to Poland, researchers have warned that the country must now turn its words into actions. However, it is paramount, also, that other countries share the burden.

Speaking at the conference, Mieczysław Struk said: “For many years the Pomeranian community has been trying to draw attention to the problems faced by the Baltic Sea. These shipwrecks clearly threaten Poland’s beaches, but this is not just a serious problem for our country, but all the other Baltic countries.

Held in the Gdynia City Museum, Gdynia’s vice-president for innovation Michał Guć said: “We are sitting on a ticking time bomb – we need to take care of this problem, not just talk about it.”Marcin Gadomski/PAP

“Steel ships rust and release chemical compounds, including oil derivatives, into the ocean, and that is why it is important that the EU’s Baltic Sea strategy should include enough funds to clean the Baltic of these wrecks.”

Doctor Benedykt Hac, an independent expert, also warned against inertia with a speech that underlined that ‘out of sight, should not mean out of mind’.

Marshal of the Pomeranian Voivodeship Mieczysław Struk said: “These shipwrecks clearly threaten Poland’s beaches, but this is not just a serious problem for our country, but all the other Baltic countries.Marcin Gadomski/PAP

“Just because we cannot see these wrecks, it does not mean they are not there,” he said.

As it is, the ocean faces a race against time with scientists predicting that Luftwaffe bombs will being to leak their load into the sea this decade; made from superior steel, it is thought that artillery shells will begin to unleash their toxins towards the end of the century.

www.pwm.org.plOne vessel of particular concern is the Franken, sunk in 1945. It is not known how much fuel it was carrying but estimates say it could be as much as 3,000 tonnes.www.pwm.org.pl

However, the degradation of oil drums filled with chemicals is already in full swing with changes in cod meat being detected, albeit in non-harmful levels so far.

Approximately 600 wrecks dot Poland’s maritime waters, of which around 20 are considered an environmental risk.

Unexploded 150 mm ammunition on the Franken.Fundacja MARE

These include the MV Wilhelm Gustloff; originally a cruise ship built as part of the Nazi ‘Strength through Joy’ programme, the ship’s sinking in 1945 resulted in the death of 9,400 people.

Filled with desperate civilians and wounded soldiers fleeing the Red Army, it remains the largest maritime disaster ever recorded.

Torpedoed by the S-13, the same Soviet submarine was responsible for another wreck that has been highlighted by the committee, the SS General von Steuben, a vessel that was sunk in similar circumstances with the loss of 4,000 on board.

In 1997 fishermen from Władysławowo required hospital treatment after coming into contact with a chemical thought to be mustard gas.  S. Kraszewski/PAP

Posing the biggest threats, though, are the Franken and the Stuttgart. The latter was being used as a hospital ship when it was hit by the first Allied air raid on Gotenhafen (now Gdynia).

Struck in the city’s port, it was towed out to sea to prevent fires spreading further and then sunk by the Germans themselves two kilometres from dock.

Serving as a supply tanker, the Franken, meanwhile, stands out as the largest wreck to be identified in the Bay of Gdańsk. Providing oil for battleships, U-Boats and minesweepers operating in the area, it was sunk by the Russians on April 8th, 1945.

Another ship littering the seabed is the MV Wilhelm Gustloff; originally a cruise ship built as part of the Nazi ‘Strength through Joy’ programme, it was sunk in 1945.DPA FILES/PAP

Though estimates vary considerably, according to some claims its storage areas may still contain anything up to 3,000 tonnes of fuel and up to 1,000 tonnes of other oil-related products. Due to break-up in the near future, environmentalists have cited the Franken as a priority.

Moreover, the problem of ‘military waste’ has been compounded further by the Soviet Union’s use of the Baltic Sea as a dumping ground – resulting from agreements with the West, the Soviets are known to have ditched several tonnes of weaponry into the sea in the 1950s, however, the exact locations of these sites remain largely a mystery.

What is known for fact, is that taken as a whole such abandoned detritus represents a tangible threat not just to the ecosystem, but to humans as well. In 1955, for instance, over 100 children suffered serious injury after playing with a barrel that washed up on the beach at Darłówko. Containing mustard gas inside, four were blinded permanently. More recently, in 1997 fishermen from Władysławowo required hospital treatment after coming into contact with a chemical thought to be mustard gas.

The problem of ‘military waste’ has been compounded further by the Soviet Union’s use of the Baltic Sea as a dumping ground – resulting from agreements with the West, the Soviets are known to have ditched several tonnes of weaponry into the sea in the 1950s, however, the exact locations of these sites remain largely a mystery.STEFAN JERREVANG/TT NEWS AGENCY/PAP/EPA

Summarising the situation, Professor Jacek Bełdowski from the Institute of Oceanology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, told the conference: “Our lack of funding is a problem but the threat is real. There is a need for a real action plan in the Polish zone of the Baltic Sea.”

He continued: “This problem will not disappear by itself… And it is a matter of scale. Will all of these hazardous compounds be released at once and create an ecological disaster, or will they be released gradually? Even if we assume the more optimistic scenario, the spills and pollution will still have an impact on the marine ecosystem.

“There will be fewer fish, or more with sickness, and the ecosystem will grow weaker. Biodiversity stands to decline.”