German WWII shipwrecks off Polish coast pose environmental threat, says Germany

Scientists explore WWII wreck for signs of leak threatening an eco disaster. Michał Procajło

WWII German shipwrecks lying off the Polish coast pose an environmental threat, the German foreign ministry has said, but removing them risks the “spontaneous release of hazardous material”.

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

At least 100 wrecks have been classified by Poland's Fundacja Mare, an organization established to protect marine ecosystems in the Baltic, as a “high priority” because they contain significant amounts of fuel that poses a threat to the natural environment.

One vessel of particular concern is the Franken. The ship went down with 2,700 tonnes of oil, plus its own fuel, after being attacked by Soviet aircraft in 1945.

www.pwm.org.pl

One vessel of particular concern is the Franken. The ship went down with 2,700 tonnes of oil, plus its own fuel, after being attacked by Soviet aircraft in 1945.www.pwm.org.pl

Most of the ship's storage tanks are believed to be intact. If the tanks were ruptured during a salvage operation, hundreds of tonnes of oil could spill out, potentially contaminating water and beaches in the vicinity of the Gdansk Bay.

The German foreign ministry said: "The German federal government is aware of the problem of ecological pollution."

Unexploded 150 mm ammunition on the Franken.Fundacja MARE

But he added that "removing dangerous substances, such as heavy oil, from the wreckage has not yet been well tried and tested."

Salvage efforts "carry with them the risk of spontaneous release of hazardous substances."

The bottom of the Baltic Sea is littered with over 40,000 tonnes of chemical weapons and half a million tonnes of conventional weapons from WWII.Marcin Bielecki/PAP

International teams of scientists are now working on how to retrieve the dangerous substances without causing a major incident.

Another German ship, the Stuttgart, lies in the Bay of Puck and has been leaking fuel since 1999.

Another German ship, the Stuttgart, lies in the Bay of Puck and has been leaking fuel since 1999.Public domain

The wreckage and the area around it have been the subject of numerous research efforts by such institutions as the Medical University of Gdansk and the Maritime Institute in Gdansk.

A 2015 survey showed that the contamination area from the Stuttgart had grown five-fold since the leak was discovered, and measured 415,000 square meters with the condition of the environment in the immediate vicinity being described as a local ecological catastrophe.