Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Chemical weapons at sea: out of sight, out of mind?

This photo was taken in 1964 by the US army in the Atlantic ocean off New Jersey. It shows mustard gas canisters being dumped at sea from a navy barge.

It is one of sixteen spectacular photos rescued from US army archives, which can be found on a website put up by Daily to illustrate a two-part series by John M.R. Bull, "Decades of Dumping Chemical Arms leave a Risky Legacy".

The story starts with an account of the accidental retrieval of an old World War-I artillery shell filled with a black tarlike substance off New Jersey during a dredging operation in the summer of 2004. Bomb disposal technicians from Dover Air Force Base were brought in to dismantle it, and three of them were injured during the operation. This incident serves to discuss the dumping at sea of decommissioned chemical weapons off the coast of the US and throughout the world.

The story reminded me of the proposal that I made on behalf of Greenpeace International in November 1993 when, after we campaigned for 15 years for a ban on the dumping of radioactive and industrial wastes at sea worldwide, the Parties to the London Convention (the international treaty that regulates the dumping of wastes at sea) agreed to ban ocean dumping:

Once dumping was banned our proposal was for the London Convention to become an international instrument that would facilitate the clean-up of the ocean floor from past dumping operations. For example, the London Convention would have developed and disseminated best practice for waste retrieval, capping or any other appropriate measure on a case-by-case basis to avoid passing the buck to future generations. It would have assisted countries to carry out such remedial operations, especially off the coasts of countries with economies in transition and developing countries.

But unfortunately, until now with respect to this issue the Contracting Parties to the London Convention have failed to act in accordance with their obligation to protect the marine environment from all sources. For their defence, one could say that they were not sufficiently supported by the Convention's Secretariat which lacks the necessary impetus and political vision to say the least...They could learn a lot from the Helsinki Commission for the Protection of the Baltic which is addressing the issue in a more responsible manner. They should also listen to the Local Authorities International Environmental Organisation (known by the achronym of its Norwegian name, KIMO) which has been campaigning for years on the issue of weapons dumpsites monitoring and clean-up in the Baltic and the North Sea.

One key problem with weapons dumping at sea is that the duty to enforce international environmental agreements on board ships entitled to sovereign immunity (military vessels enter in that category) is considered to be the exclusive competence of the vessel's operator. In other words, if a government does not control the behaviour of its navy well enough, the fox is in the chicken co-op.

For example, in the late 1990s, the French navy dumped in the Atlantic ocean old transformers containing very large quantities of PCBs (a highly toxic substance whose dumping at sea was strictly banned under the London Convention and the French legislation) despite warnings and requests from the French Environment Ministry not to do so.

In 1994, Greenpeace also documented the stricly prohibited dumping of decommissioned conventional weapons by the Spanish navy in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. It was only because Greenpeace brought the case before the annual meeting of the OSPAR Commission (the body that regulates marine pollution in the North East Atlantic) that the Spanish Environmental authorities were able to address the issue with the military, and put an end to this practice. Bringing the case to the OSPAR Commission had been my responsibility; during the meeting and beyond, I developed a sort of "secret conspiracy" with Spanish delegates who seized the opportunity to bring control in the military of their country. In the end we got what we both wanted, and we established a precedent whereby the Spanish military stopped behaving like environmental hooligans.

In the second half of the 1990s after France closed down its nuclear weapons test sites at Moruroa and Fangataufa in the South Pacific, I had the priviledge to present on behalf of Greenpeace to an annual meeting of the London Convention, a series of highly suspicious photos showing the dumping at sea of bulky items off the former nuclear test sites. The French Environment Ministry politely "thanked Greenpeace for this submission" and promissed to provide the necessary information to the London Convention. But as it turned out, the French military never replied to the Environment Ministry's request for information. Never. A military silence that meant "don't mess around with us". And the Environment minister (at the time a well known environmental lawyer, though), did not have the guts to take up the issue (or maybe the members of her cabinet did not have the right motivations to brief her properly).

My attention was drawn on John M.R. Bull's story by Kelly who received it from someone at Greenpeace-USA who was asking in an email "How long before bottom trawlers pull up nuclear waste or containers of concentrated mustard gas?". Well the truth is that that stuff is retreived by trawlers pretty frequently, particularly in the Baltic and the North Sea. But the reason people rarely hear about it is because, naturally when the captain of a fishing boat sees chemical weapons pulled on his deck the first thing he does is order the net to be pulled down immediately. (Of course they report afterward to the authorities for mapping purposes, but they don't mess around taking souvenir photos of that leaking explosive stuff)

Less than a month ago, concern was also expressed about the fate of the planned five-billion dollar gas underwater pipeline linking Russia with Germany in an area plagued with decommissioned World War II nazi chemical weapons. Oh good: if that stuff affects oil and gas industry multi-billion dollar investments, maybe someone's going to want to do something!
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