Legacy Waste: Did mustard gas from World Wars dumped in Baltic cause Nord Stream explosions

The recent Nord Stream explosions in the Baltic took place northeast of Bornholm, a major dumping ground for German chemicals and explosives including mustard gas

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 11 October 2022
A Canadian soldier suffering from Mustard Gas burns during World War I. Photo: Library and Archives Canada, C-080027 via Wikimedia Commons

Could deadly legacy waste like mustard gas used in the two World Wars and dumped in the Baltic Sea have caused the explosions during the recent Nord Stream methane leak? An article on the website of a French non-profit has hinted that this could be a possibility.

The Nord Stream pipelines carrying gas from Russia to Germany through the Baltic sprang a leak September 26, 2022 after explosions rocked the area.

A huge plume of methane, a strong greenhouse gas, subsequently spread across northern Europe before dissipating. The United Nations Environment Programme called the leak the biggest emission of methane yet.

The article uploaded October 6 on the website of Robin Des Bois, a non-profit that works for “the protection of Man and the Environment” pointed to Bornholm, a Danish island in the Baltic.

“According to Sweden and Denmark, the ruptures of the underwater gas pipelines were caused by explosions equal to several hundred kilograms of TNT, the equivalent of several conventional aerial bombs used during the last World War,” the piece read.

It added that the explosions took place to the northeast of Bornholm. The island and the sea around it was the site where an estimated 30,000-35,000 tonnes of chemical weapons from World War I and II were dumped from August 1945 to July 1965.

These chemicals were unused by Germany. Alongside, raw materials and additives used for making them were also dumped under the supervision of British and Soviet authorities in post-World War II Germany. Later, the German Democratic Republic or East Germany carried out the dumping.

These chemicals and raw materials include vesicants, irritants, lachrymogens, vomitants, sternutatories, lung agents, toxics, neurotoxics and blood agents.

Deadly and infamous products developed by German chemists such as tabun, mustard gas, phosgene and Zyklon B were also among those dumped at the site.

“At least 300 tonnes of large conventional explosive bombs were also dumped off Bornholm,” the article said.

Burns in the Baltic

The article noted that the waters around Bornholm were not more than 70-100 metres deep. At this depth, corrosion, erosion and underwater swell can easily cause the chemicals to shift and decompose.

The dominant chemical warfare agent dumped in the Baltic near Bornholm was mustard gas, according to Robin Des Bois.

“During the pre-laying works for Nord Stream 1 in the Danish Exclusive Economic Zone, four KC 250 mustard gas bombs were discovered between seven metres and 17 metres from the projected route. They were inspected prior to laying in autumn-winter 2010,” the article noted.

The non-profit said the bombs were in an advanced state of corrosion: “Mustard gas lumps were visible. It was estimated that each munition contained 20 kg, ie 20 per cent of the initial content of each bomb.”

For each munition, a 15 kg charge of TNT was visible and appeared to be intact.

But inexplicably, the Danish authorities allowed the bombs to remain where they were as they did not consider them to be a threat to the pipeline. “They were inspected again in January 2011, after the pipeline was laid. No further damage was reportedly observed,” the article said.

But mustard gas has burned people in the area. HELCOM (Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission) has noted these incidents in a report.

The document, titled Chemical Munitions Dumped in the Baltic Sea. Report of the ad hoc Expert Group to Update and Review the Existing Information on Dumped Chemical Munitions in the Baltic Sea, was published in 2013.

“Between 1994 and 2012, HELCOM reports that around 4 tonnes of mustard gas lumps were brought to the surface by fishing gear in the Bornholm area. They were mostly dumped at sea in spots designated by the Danish authorities,” according to Robin Des Bois.

At least 25 Polish fishermen were burnt by mustard gas residues caught in nets in the Bornholm area between 1968 and 1984.

Some 102 children from a summer camp were burnt on a beach in Darlowo, Poland, opposite Bornholm, in July 1955, after recovering a leaking barrel containing mustard gas from the beach.

Some 196 tonnes of fish contaminated in Danish fishermen’s nets with mustard gas particles were withdrawn from the market and destroyed between 1968 and 1984.

The chemicals have severely affected marine life around Bornholm, according to the report.

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