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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Poison Time Bomb on Baltic Seabed

ST. PETERSBURG -- Scientists and environmentalists say that barrels containing 300,000 tons of chemical weapons and resting on the floor of the Baltic Sea are leaking and could soon rupture, posing a grave threat to the region.

The Russian government is also concerned, and has instructed its officials to bring up the matter with Western governments -- some of whom put the waste there immediately after World War II, others of which would be directly affected if the leaking barrels were to poison the sea.

"We have reached a critical point," said Dr. Vadim Paka, director of Kaliningrad's Shirshov Institute of Oceanology -- a research center that achieved celebrity status for its role assisting U.S. director James Cameroon in shooting deep-sea footage of the sunken Titanic for his film of the same name.

Paka and a team, freshly returned from an expedition across the length and breadth of the Baltic Sea, said they had found trace chemicals in the water that suggest the barrels and other containers are leaking.

"While we have not yet found large concentrations, the chemicals in those weapons are already contaminating the sea in small amounts, and it will become much worse," Paka said.

Half of the barrels contain mustard gas, while the others are filled with more than a dozen other deadly poisons, among them zyklon, the nerve gas used in the Nazi's death chambers. All told, the 300,000 tons stock of chemical weapons on the Baltic Sea floor is triple the amount now in the arsenals of Russia and the United States combined.

Most of the chemicals were confiscated from Nazi Germany at the end of World War II and dumped into the Baltic Sea under an agreement quietly reached among the Allies. But about 45,000 tons of the dumped chemical weapons were old Allied stocks, according to the Conversion for the Environment Foundation in Moscow.

The chemicals were loaded aboard about 60 ships that were then sunk from 1945 to 1947. To date, only the locations of 27 of those ships are known, according to Vice Admiral Tengiz Borisov, Russia's top official on this issue.

Borisov said that 270,000 tons sunk by the British and Americans now lies on the sea bed between Norway, Sweden and Denmark, where the Baltic Sea meets the North Sea. The remainder was sunk by the Soviets off the coast of Kaliningrad.

Paka calculates that the 8-millimeter-thick walls of the barrels rust at a rate of 1 millimeter every six years -- or entirely within 48 years. The barrels have already been underwater for from 51 to 53 years.

Environmentalists and scientists warn that a widespread toxic spill would put an end to the Baltic Sea, and parts of the North Sea, as sources of seafood and as a watering hole for swimmers.

"We are on the verge of a catastrophe," said Dmitry Litvinov, an official at Greenpeace Sweden, by telephone. "We have rusty containers and if they burst open we will certainly see the death of the Baltic Sea."

Raising the ships would be problematical, because some of the chemical weapons are armed bombs that might explode if jostled, Paka said. A $2 billion alternative plan proposed by Borisov would involve encasing the ships in a special concrete instead.

Governments in the region, however, do not share the Russians' urgency.

"Overall we think that the problem is localized and does not affect the whole sea," said Kjeld Jorgensen, a marine biologist at the Danish Environmental Protection Agency.

"I do not believe this is a very pressing problem for the Baltic region," agreed Polish scientist Adam Kovalesky, the maritime secretary for the Helsinki Commission, an international environmental organization set up by Baltic region governments to study the problem.

"The submerged chemical weapons pose no harm to the maritime environment," Kovalesky said. "It might only be dangerous if fishermen take in their catches from near the contaminated sites."

Greenpeace's Litvinov called that a complacent attitude, and said it was common throughout the region. And Vice Admiral Borisov agreed. He said that Russia would be bringing the problem up again with NATO later this year, but worried it nevertheless wasn't getting the attention it deserved.

"The Baltic Sea nations are not interested in talking about the problem

because they are worried about how their tourist and fishing industries

might suffer if there is a panic over the threat," he said.