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By Helen Gordon
Mosaic,  10 Sep 2019

In January 1997, the crew of a fishing vessel in the Baltic Sea found something unusual in their nets: a greasy yellowish-brown lump of clay-like material. They pulled it out, placed it on deck and returned to processing their catch. The next day, the crew fell ill with serious skin burns. Four were hospitalised. The greasy lump was a substance called yperite, better known as sulfur mustard or mustard gas, solidified by the temperature on the sea bed.

At the end of the World War II, the US, British, French and Soviet authorities faced a big problem – how to get rid of some 300,000 tonnes of chemical munitions recovered from occupied Germany. Often, they opted for what seemed the safest, cheapest and easiest method: dumping the stuff out at sea.

© Emily Graham for Mosaic

 

Estimates are that at least 40,000 tonnes of chemical munitions were disposed of in the Baltic Sea, not all of it in designated dumping areas. Some of these locations are marked on shipping charts but comprehensive records of exactly what was dumped and where do not exist. This increases the likelihood of trawler crews, and others, coming into contact with this dangerous waste.

The problem isn’t going to go away, especially with increased use of the sea floor for economic purposes, including pipelines, sea cables and offshore windfarms.

The story of those unlucky fishermen illustrates two points. First, it is difficult to predict how future generations will behave, what they will value and where they will want to go. Second, creating, maintaining and transmitting records of where waste is dumped will be essential in helping future generations protect themselves from the decisions we make today. Decisions that include how to dispose of some of today’s most hazardous material: high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.