The Standing Committee of the BSPC met in Berlin to learn more about the environmental and health threat posed by munitions and ordnance dumped in the Baltic Sea as well as the development of measures for their detection, clearance and disposal. Aside from that, the Standing Committee reflected on past events and continued its discussions of the organisation’s future both in the short and long term. The meeting included more than 35 participants from the Åland Islands, the Baltic Assembly, Denmark, Finland, the German Bundestag, Hamburg, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Nordic Council, Norway, Poland, Schleswig-Holstein and Sweden.
BSPC President Johannes Schraps welcomed the members of the Standing Committee to Berlin. He underscored the manifold threats to democracy in the world right now – the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the continued atrocities committed there, the cost of living crisis and the ever-menacing climate change. This watershed in history meant that the BSPC had to respond with trust, togetherness and even deeper cooperation. Parliamentary cooperation was crucial in preserving democratic values, in which context the president mentioned the partnership with the Baltic Assembly and the Nordic Council.
Presentations on Sea-Dumped Ammunitions
Since the Annual Conference of the BSPC in 2019, the topic of sea-dumped ammunitions has remained high on the agenda of the organisation, leading to the CBSS and HELCOM also increasing focus on the issue. In that regard, President Schraps highlighted a recent decision of the German federal government and parliament to provide more than 100 million euros for urgently needed trials of the innovative robotic technology needed to salvage the ammunition from the seabed. He hoped that this would be the initial spark for more investments needed to clear the Baltic Sea from the toxic threats of discarded ammunition
Mr Jann Wendt, CEO of north.io, explained that munitions in seas was a worldwide problem. Beyond the Baltic and North Sea, the phenomenon occurred in the Australian and Japanese coast as well as nearly everywhere else. Most of the munitions did not come from active warfare but had been dumped after the end of World War II. While there were no exact numbers, estimate saw the amount in German waters alone at 1.6 million tonnes. Among others, this had an economic impact as shallow coastal areas were developing into hubs of economy. For windfarm foundations, additional costs of 100 million euros were estimated to ensure safe construction. Another aspect – as yet under-researched – was how the toxicity of the munitions affected aquafarming. Over the last seven years, research on the European and national levels had ramped up to create a basis for decisions like that made by the German government. His company, north.io, was involved in a number of projects, such as GEOMAR and DAEMON.
He underlined that the toxicity was affecting the environment including marine fauna. By measuring TNT content in water samples, a map of the Baltic and North Seas roughly highlighting the problem areas could be created. One hotspot was the Lübeck area, with little water exchange and a high concentration of ammunitions. Mr Wendt explained that there was a lot of data, generated by sensor stations but also by various ships in the area. Now, systems were being developed to bring together and analyse that data. Problematic aspects included that there were so many munitions in the water they could not be precisely detailed but also that some of them were on the surface while others were buried.
Regarding the political level, Mr Wendt noted several activities and projects on the European level launched since 2019, including the first EU-wide study on the phenomenon. Interreg-financed projects were common on the regional level. He underlined the role of the BSPC as a frontrunner in this field, citing the 2021 report on sea-dumped munitions. The German government not only had passed the € 102 million budget for pilot projects but was also envisioning long-term engagement for the removal of the munitions. The federal state level was also active, such as Schleswig-Holstein which was facing the problem on both its Baltic and North Sea coastlines and had been addressing it for fifteen years now. The industry, on the other hand, was currently focusing on improving its detection processes to make them safer but also more efficient. As an example, he showed a system using a ten-metre-long device towed by a ship to detect munitions magnetically – a tedious process that nevertheless represented the state of the art. Improvements were vital. As for the planned extraction processes, Mr Wendt presented a crawler system with a robotic device that would crawl over the sea floor more or less autonomously. The German investment money would primarily go into the construction of large-scale platforms installed on the ocean floor where disposal of the munitions could be undertaken, safely away from land. All of these efforts represented strategic investments, Mr Wendt explained, as they would build a foundation for a market of industrial services.
Giving his outlook on the future, the speaker emphasised that the erosion processes made it necessary to complete the massive removal processes within the coming 30 – 40 years. This was indeed a problem that could be solved in time – if the requisite political and financial will was there. Moreover, recent research and technological development had provided the tools allowing the issue to be handled. He also highlighted the urgency to act in the Baltic Sea which was extremely sensitive and already affected more heavily than other seas.
To the questions from Ms Hanna Katrín Friðriksson and Mr Staffan Eklöf, Mr Wendt replied that the awareness of the issue was highest in the Baltic Sea region as a whole. That was likely due to the sensitive nature of the sea and the early start of cooperation to restore a good status. Thus, research had also included the munitions topic which had drawn the attention of the media. Nordic and Mediterranean countries were also becoming more aware. On the grant of € 100 million by the German government, President Schraps added that this was the sum experts had stated as the minimum to develop a functional prototype. He harkened back to a BSPC demand in its resolution for a common fund for the Baltic Sea region, ensuring that efforts were coordinated and not individually separated. Prof Jānis Vucāns and Secretary General Bodo Bahr asked further questions. As for other national activities, Mr Wendt cited Poland as a hub of such efforts as well as pushing the issue on the EU level as did the Baltic countries. Most of these activities concerned research and removal if connected with navy mine extraction. As for wind farms affecting the munitions issue, he saw it as going both ways. For their construction, autonomous drone technology was being developed that could also be used in the extraction process. In return, the research and mapping undertakings also helped with wind farm planning. Frequently, cables from farm to grid had to be rerouted around ammunition clusters. Thus, their extraction would allow cheaper cable laying. Regarding toxicity, Mr Wendt warned that not only chemical weapons had a toxic effect but also conventional weapons were leaking dangerous substances. They were equally threatening.
Mr Torsten Frey, Deep Sea Monitoring Group, GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, Kiel, explained that he had also been an editor of the HELCOM Submerged Assessment and wanted to talk about its main conclusions. Starting with the issue of finding sea-dumped munitions, he presented a map showing the distribution along the German coast. As major hotspots, he named Lübeck and Kiel. As GEOMAR was located in the latter city, this gave them easy access to a testing and research ground right on their doorstep. However, Mr Frey stressed, munitions could be found anywhere in the Baltic Sea. For Germany, some 300,000 tonnes of conventional munitions were expected to be distributed in the seas as well as 5,000 tonnes of chemical ordnance. This was based on the historical records but could not yet be reproduced in current-day assessments. Moving on to the risk of mines, he noted that today, mines were retrieved from the waters after the conclusion of the conflict. In prior times, though, they were simply disarmed and left to sink to the bottom of the sea. As an example, he noted that several naval mines had been discovered during the construction of the Nordstream pipelines.
To find munition sites, magnetic means could be employed, but GEOMAR was focusing on using sonar to examine the sea floor in detail. Once a site was identified, an underwater autonomous vehicle (UAV) was sent there to take extensive pictures. These could be combined into extremely large continuous images. In example pictures, Mr Frey not only showed mines and munitions but also guncotton containing TNT out in the open. In fact, ordnance had been taken apart after the war to harvest the steel while the TNT was dumped without any casing, unfolding its toxic effect. With a video, he showcased the messy, complicated arrangement of these dumped munitions, underlining that nobody had any experience in clearing such sites yet. Thus, this was another area where research and learning were needed.
Moving on to the HELCOM Submerged Assessment, Mr Frey noted that – as part of the permanent working group Pressure – a sub-group called Submerged had been established in HELCOM. The sub-group’s goal was to contribute to regionally coordinated actions on submerged munitions and explosives of concern as well as other submerged hazardous objects. He pointed out that there was another sub-group working on shipwrecks. Based on a three-year assessment of the situation across the Baltic Sea, the report featured a chapter on each country bordering the Baltic Sea, describing its history concerning munitions. There was a lot of information on the risks posed by munitions as well as protection and management. Finally, for all the bordering countries – with the exception of Latvia and Russia –, there was a list and short description of the respective national and international activities. That report would be published early in 2023. As conclusions, three major areas of concern had been identified: explosive hazard which was increasing as the ordnance was becoming more fragile; potential direct contact such as white phosphorus; the environmental hazard. Despite the great efforts in the past years, research gaps remained. For example, there was no science-based roadmap on where to start clearances nor was there continuous monitoring of the munition hotspots. Neither had toxicological thresholds been established nor was the effect of the leaking toxins in the food web fully explored. Mr Frey stated that a Baltic Sea-wide data set had not yet been put together either as all the gathered information was stored in national databases. He went on to note that the countries of HELCOM had been invited to invest in clearance and disposal technologies, such as the crawler mentioned by Mr Wendt earlier. Mr Frey underlined that the current state of the art was good at finding munitions, okay at clearing them, but there was no good way of disposing them as of this point. The further one went up the process chain, the less developed were the capabilities.
Mr Frey summarised his presentations by noting that munitions had to be expected throughout the Baltic Sea, although contamination hotspots were known from historical records. Yet further – and more detailed – mapping was necessary. Research was ongoing but had to be continued and intensified to fill knowledge gaps and create region-wide data. As for technology, clearance and disposal tools had to be fully established. He cautioned that at the current speed, it would take centuries to clear the sea. Thus, to meet this challenge in the 30 – 40 years left at maximum, financial and political will were needed to accelerate the process appropriately.
Mr Bahr asked whether the clearance process could be completed in the 20-year span demanded in the BSPC resolution. Mr Frey answered that a focused effort on the dumped munitions in German waters could clear the area within ten years and deposit them on land. But that would represent a bottleneck and inherent security problem, so that offshore disposal – ideally with more efficient methods still to be fully developed – should be the goal. Thus, this aspect should be the focus. Even for the German munitions, he expected that disposal would take longer than twenty years. To the question by Mr Schraps about international efforts, Mr Frey noted his side’s good connections to Poland, adding that Finland was also research-driven. He stated that there was no overview of who was responsible for the research and disposal processes in the various countries, whether it was the military or civil organisations.
Prof Dr Edmund Maser, Director of Toxicology and Pharmacology for Natural Scientists at the University Medical School Kiel, recapped that massive amounts of ammunition had been dumped in the North and Baltic Seas after WWII. Now, they had corroded and were leaking toxicological substances into the environment. Thus, they were entering both the sediment but also the habitat as the source of the food chain of marine life. By itself, TNT was already toxic, yet it was metabolised into an even more threatening substance, also affecting the nervous system and raising the mutagenic potential. The marine food web also included fish caught for human consumption, carrying the toxicological problem straight to people’s dinner plates.
This made monitoring and risk assessment crucial. Several projects on this were underway, for instance through mussels. As a sedentary species, they were the ideal organism to measure the entry of toxic compounds into seafood. Prof Maser picked Kiel as an example with the already mentioned dumping site, more specifically a cluster of 70 British mines measuring one metre in diameter and containing 250 – 300 kg of TNT. At that site, his team had built a mooring on which to anchor mussels and expose them to the chemicals. After several weeks, the mussels were collected and analysed in the lab to find that every single mussel had metabolised TNT. Moreover, the amount taken up was the same, no matter the distance of the animals from the mines and whether they had been located directly on the sea floor or one meter above on the mooring. That indicated a cloud of toxic substances surrounding the mines.
Another example from the same spot concerned the craters that had been blasted into the sea floor by exploding mines, leaving behind open TNT remains. In the same fashion, mussels were planted there. The scientists had been surprised in their analysis to find that not only had TNT been metabolised but that they had found 50 times higher concentrations of these munition compounds in the animals. This yielded two important messages: First, any operations disturbing the sea floor had to be avoided – such as “blast in place” – because they would scatter the ordnance and thus further distribute the toxic substances. Second, the metal casings currently provided a barrier to entry for the TNT. But the metal was corroding and would be gone in a few decades’ time. Then, the TNT would freely distribute, creating 50 times higher concentrations and vastly more severe effects. Prof Maser contextualised this by noting that the mussels in the first case – around still intact mines – could still be eaten safely by a human being but that the mussels themselves were already ill from the exposure. The second case of free-floating TNT loaded the mussels up so much that consuming them would bear a carcinogenic risk to humans. These must not be eaten.
The team had moved on to investigate the effect on fish, finding evidence of explosive substances in flatfish in the area. While the amounts were not so high to prevent safe consumption by human beings, they had affected the health of the animals, with a quarter of them having developed liver tumours. These findings had been compared to their North Sea investigation of a shipwreck where they had detected up to 9 nanograms of TNT in fish fillets. Even here, 60 % of the fish had presented liver tumours. In principle, both sites showed the same phenomenon. In laboratory experiments, they had found that a concentration of 3 mg per litre proved fatal for infant fish. In the wild, areas with many clefts and hiding places were preferred places for sea animals to lay their eggs – such as the messy dumping sites. But in the areas with free-floating TNT, the saturation of the water was exactly at the lethal dose of 3 mg per litre. At a time when fish stocks were already threatened, this posed an additional pressure on fish species, on top of other contaminants, e.g., from medical or pesticide runoff. With the ongoing corrosion of the casings, the exposure to TNT would increase and spread. Thus, it was vital to begin the clearance as early as was possible.
Ms Annette Lind asked about Denmark’s involvement and awareness, to which Prof Maser confirmed that his side was cooperating with Danish scientists and navy. The situation was similar. However, the professor had witnessed a “blast in place” operation by the Danish navy, taking measurements before and after to see that the concentration of the explosive compounds was 2000 times higher afterwards. President Schraps added that public awareness in Germany was mostly limited to headlines like a navy explosion accidentally killing numbers of dolphins. Even though the topic was drowned out by the many crises raging around the world, that only reinforced the need for the BSPC among others to focus on the topic. Ms Anna Kassautzki pointed out that this topic was not as visible out at sea but that there was still more awareness among the coastal regions’ population. Mr Staffan Eklöf asked about the carcinogenic baseline and possible retardation of the corrosion. Prof Maser explained that the baseline in other waters was below 5 %, but he stressed that TNT and TNT derivatives had been measured all across the Baltic Sea, so there were no non-contaminated control figures. As for corrosion, he knew of no way to reinforce the individual casings. The metal strengths differed; some were only two centimetres thick and had mostly corroded away entirely while others would last longer. Assessing the speed of the corrosion was difficult. Mr Frey confirmed that corrosion could not be stopped. The idea of covering the sites had been put forward, but that was physically not possible due to, among other factors, the dispersion of the ordnance. Mr Wendt pointed out that magnetics were often used to find munitions but that these were targeting the shells. Thus, that was no longer feasible once the shells had corroded away. On the other hand, that meant those munitions about to lose their corrosive shells were the ones that should be removed first before it was too late. Ms Lene Westgaard-Halle inquired about the best method of clearing mines and whether best practice examples were available. Mr Wendt underlined that there had not been any financing for these projects before and also that the clearance had to be a joint effort since sea-dumped munitions were not a national concern. They went beyond the Baltic Sea as well, affecting the entire planet. Mr Frey noted that in Norway, mines were taken to fjords and exploded there, but that was not applicable to other countries. Disposal methods had to be adapted to the geographical circumstances and the types of munition in question. Prof Maser pointed to the Skagerrak in Norway as an example of ships filled to the brim with chemical munitions having been sunk purposefully. Given the added danger of chemical weaponry, such as mustard gas, the Norwegian side was currently limited to monitoring with RUVs.
BSPC Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity
President Schraps noted that the chairmanship had been transferred to Mr Philipp da Cunha, after the previous chair, Ms Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby, had left parliament. Mr Wille Valve informed the Standing Committee that the current vice-chair of the group, Ms Liz Mattsson, was taking her maternity leave and that a successor, Mr Jesper Josefsson, had been appointed. who was also prepared to take on the position of the WG Vice-chairman. A possible digital meeting of the working group for December or January was still being considered. Regarding the next in-person meeting of the working group, Ms Lene Westgaard-Halle notified the group that it would take place in Tromsø, in northern Norway, with the presentations concerning the Arctic Circle and its interaction with the climate. Mr Jarosław Wałęsa explained that the meeting after that in Poland would be held in Gdańsk on 14 – 15 May.
32nd BSPC Conference in Berlin in 2023
President Schraps outlined the planned schedule for the conference. The opening session would be introduced by the President of the German Bundestag, Ms Bärbel Bas. The following sessions were based on the current Strategy and Work Programme of the BSPC, with the first dealing with Peaceful and reliable neighbourliness and intense cooperation based on shared fundamental values, also in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The German Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ms Annalena Baerbock, had been confirmed as keynote speaker. The second session would deal with Boosting democratic resilience and promoting digital resilience, featuring Mr Paul Nemitz, Principal Advisor of the European Commission, as a keynote speaker. For the third session on Strengthening the resilience of maritime ecosystems, Ms Steffi Lemke, German Federal Minister for Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection, would give the keynote speech. On the evening of the first day, the German Federal President, Mr Frank-Walter Steinmeier, would invite the BSPC to a reception at the Official Presidential Residence in Bellevue Palace. The fourth session, on the second day, was being considered to deal with synergy effects with the German presidency of the CBSS. Following that, a general debate would allow the participants to react to all current issues and challenges. The president invited proposals for further speakers as well as resolution topics to be discussed at the Conference.
Prof Jānis Vucāns and Mr Wille Valve submitted considerations and announced suggestions for possible speakers to contribute.
Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum
President Schraps appreciated both the Swedish delegation having organised it in 2020 and 2021 as well as the young people contributing to the debate and the resolution, also at the Conference and in the Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity. Youth work had been intensified, also in partnership with the BSSSC and, as traditionally, the CBSS. Prof Jānis Vucāns appreciated involving young people in developing the solutions for the future.
In 2023, the forum would be held again, also back to back with the Annual Conference. Equally, it would be implemented once more in close cooperation with the CBSS. This time, though, it would be held on-site from 25-27 August 2023, with 50 young people whose costs of travelling and accommodation would be covered by the German Bundestag. The event would include networking sessions on specific topics, a panel discussion with experts on a specific topic and round table group discussions to elaborate recommendations. As at previous forums, members of parliament from the BSPC would take part in these sessions as well. To that end, President Schraps asked for proposals from the Standing Committee.
The young people would elaborate their recommendations on the final day of the forum. Immediately afterwards, all of the participants were invited to the Annual Conference where their representatives would present the recommendations. Mr Staffan Eklöf, Mr Bodo Bahr and Ms Johanna Ingvarsson, spoke about the modalities of recruitment for the forum.
The Standing Committee continued its discussion on the future financial structure of the BSPC, beginning with the budget for the present year. Despite the loss of the fees from the Russian parliaments, costs could be kept below the initially estimated figures inter alia because of the active support from the hosting parliaments and that translation in the Standing Committee and the Working Group was no longer needed. However, the amount of contributions had shrunk significantly. The Standing Committee approved the present state of the budget as well as the still outstanding amendment to paragraph 11 of the Statutes and Rules of Procedure. The latter will be confirmed at the next Annual Conference. The Standing Committee also spoke about the first raise of the parliamentary contributions since 2009, in particular with regard to the procedural aspects of parliamentary budgeting. Given the loss of the Russian legislative assemblies contributions as well as the overall rise of costs, the Standing Committee agreed to raise the contributions of the BSPC parliaments. A letter detailing the new contributions would be sent out by the secretary general to the individual parliaments.
Prof Jānis Vucāns, Mr Staffan Eklöf, Ms Hanna Friðriksson, President Schraps, Ms Carola Veit, Mr Jarosław Wałęsa, Ms Annette Lind, Mr Joonas Könttä, Ms Lene Westgaard-Halle and Secretary General Bahr participated in the discussion.
Following that, the Standing Committee spoke about the continuing question of once again establishing a permanent office of the BSPC. Several options were considered. Ms Annette Lind, Mr Wille Valve, Ms Hanna Friðriksson, Mr Staffan Eklöf, Ms Carola Veit contributed to the debate. President Schraps suggested forming a small group of representatives from both the delegations and the secretariat to develop the possible options in order to present them in comparable form to the Standing Committee at its next meeting for a decision. The Standing Committee agreed to this proposal.
President Schraps informed the Standing Committee that the materials on the 31st BSPC Annual Conference had been published on the website. He added that the Conference in Stockholm had been outstanding, with high-level speakers and in impressive surroundings. With Russia no longer part of the BSPC, conversations had been more unrestrained than ever before, exploring topics – such as security – more deeply than had been possible earlier. Ms Hanna Katrín Friðriksson, Prof Jānis Vucāns and Mr Wille Valve confirmed this experience. For the governmental answers to the 31st BSPC Resolution, a deadline of 15 April 2023 was set. Ms Beate Schlupp reported that the parliament of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern had already agreed to the resolution.
Regarding future presidencies of the BSPC, President Schraps noted that the Danish parliament had confirmed it would take over the organisation’s chair in 2023. Ms Annette Lind of Denmark reiterated the welcome of the Danish parliament to the BSPC, outlining the current political situation in her home country after the election and the need for further time until concrete personnel decisions can be made.
The new head of the Swedish delegation of the BSPC, Mr Staffan Eklöf, was nominated and appointed vice-president of the organisation as the representative of the preceding presidency. Mr Wille Valve from the Åland Islands and Ms Kristina Herbst from Schleswig-Holstein stated their home parliaments’ interests and willingness in hosting the BSPC in 2025 and 2026, respectively.
The Standing Committee further considered in which upcoming events participation would be possible and took note of the BSPC schedule.