Monday, December 12, 2011

Looks like those Baltic shipwrecks hold hidden dangers

Two days ago I wrote about the discovery of a urinal used by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, now at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. It's in the wreck of a German cruiser sunk in 1915 by a British submarine, which sank several other ships during its war patrols there.

Now comes news that salvage operations in areas like that - to say nothing of fishing, drilling, or the laying of undersea pipelines and cables - may be much more hazardous than I'd realized. The Local's German edition reports:

More than 1.6 million tonnes of old war munitions remain at the bottom of the Baltic and North Seas in German waters, creating an ever-present danger for fishermen or workers laying pipeline in the region.

A government-sponsored working group produced the new report “Contaminated Munitions Sites in the Ocean,” which identified dozens of sites where large numbers of dangerous items, mostly from the World War II era, have been dumped. It said the problem is most severe in the North Sea, where at least 1.3 million tonnes of conventional and chemical munitions are at the bottom of the sea.

Officials warned that the full extent of the problem is unclear, particularly in the Baltic Sea, because many large munitions dumps have yet to be identified.

“Up to now, only a small portion of the affected areas are known,” said Tobias Knobloch of the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency, adding that even documents showing where munitions might be located have large gaps in them.

In some cases, particularly in waters off Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, data and facts on dumping were apparently never even written down.

There's more at the link.

The problem is compounded by the fact that both the Baltic and the North Seas are relatively shallow, so that the explosives lie close enough to the surface to pose a real hazard. A similar problem exists off many parts of the US coastline, too, where surplus military munitions were dumped overboard after the cessation of hostilities in more than one war. Accidents with munitions barges have caused further problems, such as the one I wrote about last year, which delayed construction of a waste transfer station near New York City. Even worse, chemical weapons have been dumped at sea in wholesale quantities, sometimes causing mass casualties to marine life.

What bugs me is that so little has been done to rectify the problem. Ssince we know it exists, why hasn't someone somewhere put his or her mind to the problem, and figured out how best to deal with it? Instead, it seems to be handled on a piecemeal basis, dealing with specific problems as they arise, but leaving untold millions of tons of ordnance down there where it can kill or maim people who come across it unexpectedly. That's not a very comforting thought . . .



Shrimp said...

To be completely honest, I think the reason it is only dealt with on a "as needed" basis is that it is incredibly expensive, especially when one considers that the munitions have been down there for 60+ years, and people are not regularly encountering them. When they do, it needs dealt with, but until then, the cost-benefit analysis says don't bother.

From a moral/ethical (and ecological) standpoint, I firmly think we ought to be cleaning it up. But right this minute, we have other things to be doing with our money.

Captain Tightpants said...

Peter - as someone who has, and continues to work in this field Shrimp hit the big issue - money.

There are multiple cost issues at stake here.

#1 - finding and charting the ordnance fields - the vast majority of which are at depths beyond effective diving (or at least prolonged). On a seafloor with 2000+ years of junk collected. To do a realistic chart & ID that means sonar, divers, submersible ROVs, etc. - and each and every contact has to be checked. Very time consuming and thus very expensive.

#2 - recovery and disposal. Do you blow the items in place? That's the safest option, but environmentally it brings a lot of concerns in. Plus, if doing it around oil rigs, pipelines etc. there are collateral damage concerns. So, that means each item needs to get lifted to the surface, safely transported to a disposal range (which can be tricky with a lot of things), and then countercharged, rendered safe or otherwise dealt with. Then whatever is left has to be disposed of to the appropriate environmental standards.

This isn't even discussing the nightmare arising with chemical weapons under this - where right now there are a limited number of facilities in the world to deal with them, and the containment and transport issues of 60+ year old corroded ordnance cannot even be adequately conveyed.

Am I saying the choice to leave them for now is the best option? Of course not. But, financially, it's been the simplest way to go for a long time. Like any other insurance, you're playing the odds. But until ROV technology improves to the point of doing a render-safe at 200 feet reliably, the cost factor is simply going to be too prohibitive for a large-scale cleanup.