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4th Apr 2020

Feature

Mustard gas and cod: Last chance to stop Nord Stream 2?

  • Nord Stream 2 pipe-laying in Swedish waters in the Baltic Sea (Photo: nord-stream2.com)

First, the Nazis, then, the Soviet Union - shortly after World War Two - dumped tens of thousands of tonnes of chemical weapons 70m to 120m down in the Baltic Sea, near the Danish island of Bornholm.

Navigation equipment at the time was not very good and the Soviet Union did not record the exact locations, so the precise spots are unknown.

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  • Pipeline route to skirt Danish island of Bornholm in final construction segment (Photo: nord-stream2.com)

The old munitions have also drifted from place to place over the decades, with bombs in wooden crates sometimes washing up on Danish and Swedish shores and with 100kg clots of poison sometimes fished out of the sea.

But about two weeks from now, a Russian firm will start dropping "concrete mattresses", rocks, and steel pipes on the sea bed adjacent to the dumping grounds to lay the final section of Nord Stream 2, a controversial gas pipeline to Germany.

If old munitions are disturbed, it could cause an ecological nightmare.

One of the toxic agents that was dumped there was tabun, which attacks the central nervous system.

Another one was mustard gas, which can alter enzymes and DNA and which becomes more harmful than it first was over time and contact with water.

According to geneticists, if just a few molecules of mustard gas enter the organisms of fish, such as cod, which spawn in the Bornholm area, or the seals which eat them, they can cause mutations three to four generations later.

Nord Stream 2 had proposed three potential routes.

But the one that got the go-ahead, a 147km path connecting other sections of the pipe in Swedish and German waters, is the shortest and cheapest.

Several organisations in the region, such as the Finnish Association of Professional Fishermen and Polish NGOs, voiced concern during a Danish consultation process.

People in Bornholm were asked about it in June.

And surveys by the Danish Energy Agency (DEA) in Copenhagen "carried out for this route variant [showed] that the concentration of chemical warfare agents is greater than along other route variants".

But on 30 October, the DEA gave its green light anyway, removing the final obstacle to Nord Stream 2 completion, which already had Finnish, Swedish, and German permits for its other sections and which has already laid more than 2,100km of pipes in the Baltic.

"The agency has approved the shortest route, since this route provides the least risk and impact from an environmental and safety perspective," a DEA spokesman, Ture Falbe-Hansen, told EUobserver on Monday (11 November).

"Procedures are in place to handle unexpected munition finds during the construction and operation phase safely," Jens Mueller, a spokesman for the Nord Stream 2 consortium, a Russian-owned firm in Switzerland, told this website on Tuesday.

"Experts from the Royal Danish Naval Command will be on board the pipe-lay vessels during the entire construction phase in Danish waters, to examine equipment that has touched the seabed and ensure there has been no chemical contamination," he added.

Strategic concern

Nord Stream 2 is also toxic for political reasons.

Its critics say it will entrench EU fossil fuel dependency on Russia when it starts pumping gas in 2020 and help the Kremlin to blackmail pro-Western countries, such as Poland and Ukraine, by rerouting gas supplies to Europe from Polish and Ukrainian transit networks via the new conduit.

For his part, Russian president Vladimir Putin congratulated Denmark for its "responsible" decision in a press briefing in Budapest on 30 October.

But the DEA permit is not quite the end of the story.

According to its terms, "any party with a significant and individual interest in the decision, as well as local and national associations and organisations whose main aim is to protect nature and the environment" can still question the DEA go-ahead by writing to the Danish Energy Board of Appeal (DEBA) in the city of Viborg "no later than four weeks after announcement of the decision".

And Nord Stream 2 cannot start construction in the danger zone until the appeals period has expired.

For their part, two Ukrainian organisations have tried to raise the alarm.

The Da Vinci think tank in Kiev published a report on 1 November which said: "Due to the gas pipeline laying there is a high likelihood of damage to the integrity of munitions or their detonation, which will result in large-scale damage to the Baltic Sea. Also, the detonation of munitions is not excluded after the gas pipeline is launched, due to vibration".

The Institute for Global Threats and Democracies Studies (IGTDS), a Ukrainian NGO, is also circulating a paper to European media which alleges that: "Environmentalists' concerns over the threats to ecology both during construction and operation [of Nord Stream 2] were knocked aside by big money coming from Russia" on the €9.5bn project.

But with the time window quickly closing, the DEBA in Viborg told EUobserver that, as of Tuesday, "no appeals have been filed".

Asked by EUobserver if an appeal could still halt construction, its spokeswoman Ellen Øvig Jørgensen, said: "If an appeal is upheld, it will follow from the decision, what the consequences are for the project".

It takes on average 17.2 months to process a petition.

Fait accompli?

But that does not mean Nord Stream 2 would have to put off laying its "concrete mattresses" and pipes during that period and it remains to be seen what the Russian firm would have to do if the DEBA said it was wrong to have done so after its fait accompli.

"A complaint does not have a suspensory effect," the DEBA's Øvig Jørgensen said.

Nord Stream 2's Mueller, in any case, voiced bullishness that there would be no disruption.

"We do not speculate on potential appeals and its impacts on the project," he told this website.

"We are confident that the environmental assessments that support Nord Stream 2's permit application and the subsequent assessments made by the expert Danish authorities have taken all aspects under consideration," he added.

And "given the sky-high level of lobbyism of the project, one can only hope for a miracle," the Ukrainian NGO, the IGDTS, said.

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