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Troubled waters: the hidden legacy of chemical weapons dumping

Troubled waters: the hidden legacy of chemical weapons dumping
By Euronews
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Brothers Giovanni and Michele de Candia have been fishing off the Italian coast of Molfetta for decades. It is a livelihood that they claim has come with an increasing cost to their health. The cause is exposure to a legacy long dumped in Europe’s seas.

“We had problems breathing, after four hours, it was hard to breathe,” said Giovanni. “Our eyes burned and then there were problems with the fingers, especially the tip of the fingers that you use for working, there and on the body, red boils appeared, sort of like mushrooms. Then they would dry and disappear.”

Government environmental agencies have run tests on the brothers and other fishermen. They are still waiting for the results.

But Michele knows why he is sick – mustard gas. He told euronews: “These bombs around us, with time, the metal containers get corroded and it (the mustard gas) comes out of the containers and moves with the water. It gets on the nets. And when we pull them up, our hands, our eyes burn and all that.”

“My father fished with weights, he would pull out full cases thrown into the sea by the Germans, the English, all over the coast, dumped all over, depending on the weather,” said Giovanni. “If the weather was bad, they would go just beyond the port and boom!.. they threw them in. Here there are plenty: conventional and non-conventional bombs including mustard gas.

Secret cargo

It is thought a US ship, the John Harvey, with a secret cargo of mustard gas, was sunk by a German bomber in Bari port in 1943.

It was secret because all sides had signed the Geneva Convention in the 1920s prohibiting the use of chemical weapons in war.

The deadly chemical contaminated and even killed soldiers and civilians, especially those working to clean up the port. Later munitions, including Mussolini’s chemical stockpiles were also dumped at sea.

Risky move

Today, marine scientists have estimated there are around 90,000 such weapons littering the coast off Bari. While the majority are conventional munitions, there is a small percentage of chemical stockpiles, including the mustard gas fishermen say they have encountered.

But for biologist Nicola Ungaro, who works for an environmental agency that advises the government, it is much riskier to move them than to leave them on the sea floor.

“Obviously the option to remove the chemical bombs from the sea would be the best thing, because that way we would avoid any problems in the sea,” said Ungaro. “But the problem would be what would happen once the bombs are on land. I mean the area where they would be disposed of. In the end, moving them could provoke a worse scenario with substances leaking and this could be worse than just leaving them in place.”

To avoid contact with these toxic substances, fishermen have been advised where not to fish and what to do if they see or touch any type of munition. But some believe that is not enough and that the WWII munitions need to be removed.

Clean up the closest

Environmental engineer Massimiliano Piscitelli goes even further. He says there are also cluster bombs with depleted uranium dropped by NATO planes when returning to base from the 1999 Kosovo conflict.

However, he thinks Italy’s priority should be the bombs closest to shore: “A clean-up operation of the bombs lying near the coast is an incredibly costly operation which would require lots of time and lots of personnel. It’s also dangerous but it’s the only option since these bombs have been dumped just a few hundred metres from the beaches where people swim or even in the ports where fishermen drop anchor.”

Italy is not the only country confronted with a toxic legacy. From the Baltic to the North Sea and beyond, millions of unexploded chemical munitions haunt Europe’s seabeds.

Belgium bombs

Some 500 metres off the coast of Belgium are 35,000 tonnes of chemical munitions from World War I.

Fishing and swimming are forbidden, but marine scientists say the munitions are safely buried and closely monitored and to leave them there is the best option.

Jan Mees, who heads the Flanders Marine Institute, said for Belgium – where chemical weapons like mustard gas were used for the first time in war – their legacy is a heavy one to bear: “We were left with tonnes and tonnes of ammunition. Mainly German ammunition but also others. A lot of chemical warheads were just lying around in Flanders fields. The area was covered with it.

“So they had to get rid of it in some way. And the government at the time took a very quick and easy decision, they found a sandbank where the bombs could be buried, that’s not too far offshore so they could be taken there without organising very complicated sea transports. For six months every day a full ship of chemical warheads was dumped on that site.”

Jan Savelkoels works for a Belgian company that specialises in undersea ammunition clean-up. He is also a member of IDUM - the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions.

Savelkoels says with time the cap protecting the fusing device has corroded. He also warned that some of the chemical munitions dumped into the seas until the early 90s will start leaking and should be monitored.

It will be a very expensive exercise: “We have to involve the political authorities in this problem and that’s exactly what IDUM tries to do especially in the Baltic states. They are trying to explain from a safety point of view what is the problem of those unexploded ammunitions laying on the sea bottom. We are talking of 1.6 billion tonnes of ammunition in the Baltic Sea. In the North Sea, we are talking about 1.3 billion tonnes of ammunition.”

Chemical time bombs

Matteo D’Ingeo has just launched a citizens’ environment group in the Italian town of Molfetta. He showed us where chemical weapons enclosed in a cement case are less than 50 metres off the beach. He is calling for them to be removed and dismantled.

The campaigner agrees that Italy’s debate over dumped munitions has also been re-ignited with plans for Syria’s chemical stockpiles to be brought to an Italian port. There they will be transferred to a US ship which will then dismantle the weapons on boat out at sea.

He says once again, there are many questions with few answers: “We were worried when we learned that the chemical weapons would be brought here and dismantled off the Italian Coast. Someone needs to explain to us the procedure they will use: this so-called hydrolysis system, why it’s safe? And they haven’t yet told us where they will dispose of the containers with the waste. Will it be at sea? And where? Sometimes they talk about the Mediterranean, then the ocean but regardless of where it will be stored, it will be a problem.”

No answers, no compensation

Meanwhile Michele and Giovanni di Candia are also waiting for answers to why they still have not been given their test results. They have not been compensated either – just advised.

“They told us – the fishermen – to wear a full-protection suit and gas mask. And I said, where do you think I work? In the sea or in a chemical factory,? Michele complained.

While governments and the military have become more transparent over the years about munition dumping sites, the concern is that they may be out of their depth when dealing with weapons buried at sea.

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