The dumping at sea of unwanted chemical and conventional munitions has occurred at many sites around the world. Most of the dumping took place following the end of the First and Second World Wars, when surplus stocks needed disposal.
The hazards of these munitions did not vanish deep below the surface of the sea. They still affect the Baltic, North Sea and Adriatic Sea, as well as the Atlantic coast of the United States and Canada. Munitions dumping from decades ago also continues to be a concern for Australia and Japan.
Conventional and chemical weapons threaten both human life and the marine environment. They endanger fishing and navigation, impede offshore energy development, aquaculture, shipping, tourism and other blue economy sectors.
Among other issues, incomplete documentation on the number and location of dumps, means it is impossible to determine just how much chemical munitions lie on the seabed. The dumps contain toxic substances and represent a serious hazard to the environment and people.
Apart from munitions, there are also hundreds of shipwrecks where progressive corrosion creates a risk of fuel leakage, petroleum products and poisonous warfare agents. This could cause an ecological disaster in many European waters, specifically within the Baltic Sea, which many consider to be the most polluted waters in the world.
That is why, last year, along with MEPs from six political groups – including from all the Baltic Sea States - we called on European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to take urgent action on nine specific recommendations.
“Experts and stakeholders agree that disposal of old underwater conventional and chemical weapons is a necessity”
The entire European Parliament intensified this call with a special resolution adopted a few months ago which was endorsed by 660 MEPs, with only eight voting against - a clear signal of the broad political support for urgent action.
The EU has a successful track record in supporting mine clearance action worldwide, including in the Balkans, Africa and Asia. There is a knowledge and experience base to draw on, one which can be adapted accordingly.
I am convinced that the dumped munitions and chemicals can be another example of the EU’s positive and effective engagement in this regard, particularly given that much of this threat lies in European waters.
This problem is not new to the Commission. In 2019, I took part in a discussion on the challenges of unexploded munitions in the sea, an important step in sharing experience and knowledge. We expect that a specific study launched by the Commission this year will be followed by a set of decisive follow-ups.
Such action would be entirely consistent with the objectives of the EU Maritime Security Strategy (EUMSS) action plan. This commits Member States and the Commission to promoting exercises and training programmes, including involving relevant regional organisations, to optimise the disposal of sea-dumped chemical munitions and unexploded ordnances.
There are, of course, broader legal frameworks which require actions, such as the Marine Strategy Framework Directive or HELCOM Convention for the Protection of the Baltic Sea.
Experts and stakeholders agree that disposal of old underwater conventional and chemical weapons is a necessity. The elements that are also pushing for acceleration and decisions in this area are changing ocean temperatures, salinity and density levels, which are having an unknown impact on the dumped munitions.
“Apart from munitions, there are also hundreds of shipwrecks where progressive corrosion creates a risk of fuel leakage, petroleum products and poisonous warfare agents”
If we add the progressive expansion of the use of the sea by humans for energy, aquaculture and other resources, we are faced with the urgent issue of tackling this problem. As it is a highly complex and delicate challenge, views on how to do it are divided; engineers, scientists, policymakers and financiers are currently debating the best strategies for safely destroying these weapons.
Some experts insist that they should be left where they are, but should be properly secured against leakage and corrosion, others argue they should be removed or neutralised.
The European Parliament’s ECR Group has been paying special attention to maritime security and blue economy. Later this month, in recognition of the importance of the problem, pressure of time and the need to raise awareness of this threat among political decision makers, our annual maritime conference will be devoted to this topic, hosting stakeholders and leading experts from around the globe.
Our guests will assess the legal framework and global attempts to tackle the threat, present the current knowledge on unexploded ordnance, munitions and chemicals lying sea and ocean beds, and propose the most effective and economically viable solutions.
They will also suggest what course of action the EU Institutions, Member States, science, the private sector and other stakeholders should pursue. Panellists will discuss and present some of the environmentally friendly and cost-effective solutions for controlling and cleaning the pollution emerging from the dumped munitions.
I warmly invite all the Parliament Magazine’s readers to follow this important event on our social media channels.
The ECR Conference Maritime Security and the Blue Economy. The unexploded munitions and chemical residues in the sea - in search for lasting and economically viable solutions will take place on 17 November 2021, from 10:00-15:30 and can be followed live on the ECR Group’s Social Media Channels.
More information at: ecrgroup.eu