INTERNATIONAL: U-Boats And Guns:Military Waste Lingers in Europe

Like old soldiers, military waste never seems to die. In fact, wastes from history's most militant century still litter the floor of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea and spot the German countryside. These wastes include old munitions (conventional weapons) and sunken ships as well as pollutants from former weapons production plants, bases abandoned since the Cold War and bombed facilities.

During World War II, German U-boats prowled the Atlantic, originally operating alone and, later, in "wolf packs" that attacked convoys of Allied merchant ships. At its high point in the first quarter of 1943, the U-boat offensive sank 208 Allied ships weighing close to 1.1 million metric tons at a loss of only 14 U-boats.

By May of that year, however, the tide turned - only 50 ships weighing 240,220 metric tons were sunk at a cost of 40 U-boats. By war's end, the wreckage on the sea floor totaled 5,700 Allied vessels weighing nearly 20.9 million metric tons, plus two-thirds of the U-boat fleet. In addition, 215 U-boats were scuttled.

Last year, the British Defense Ministry granted permission to retrieve a fleet of more than 100 U-boats scuttled off the coast of Northern Ireland shortly before the end of the second world war. The boats, which include all four types commissioned, are expected to yield copper and bronze worth up to 100,000 British pounds (about U.S. $159,750) each (see figure).

In the postwar process of demilitarizing the Third Reich, an estimated one million metric tons of munitions were disposed of in the waters around islands north of Germany and the Netherlands. At least 10,000 metric tons remain today, according to Wasser & Bo-den, after scavenging by self-ap-pointed "munitions researchers" from 1949 to 1952 and intensified government-permitted recovery activities from 1952 to 1958.

Using acoustic and magnetic detection, more than 5,000 anomalies on and in the sea floor were located in seven areas in recent years. Divers found that the anom-alies averaged 2 to 3 metric tons of munitions each. Their condition varies from minimal corrosion of the munitions made of bronze to nearly complete disintegration of parts or casings made of ferrous metal or aluminum. In isolated cases, the munitions still function, though the danger from self-detonation is rated low.

Lower Saxony, the German state bordering on the North Sea, recommends against recovery, particularly by drag nets, which can reposition the munitions on the sea floor. Leaving them in place is thought to be the environmentally safer approach, considering the slow release of pollutants and the high-volume water exchange.

The state is peppered by former military sites. Its woodlands offered cover for troop maneuvers, and water was readily available for weapons production. Since 1989, nearly 400 potentially contaminated sites have been identified. Before actual cleanup work begins, though, site assessments typically will be performed at four levels, from preliminary through detailed investigations, by qualified independent engineering firms.

Extensive research in Germany during the first half of this decade has produced a list of 3,240 weapon production sites dating back to both world wars. The responsible states are in the process of evaluating the level of risk the chemicals and explosives at these locations pose to humans and animals.

In its inventory of military waste sites, the city of Bremen includes facilities bombed during the war, such as a former high-capacity benzene plant, a refinery and a fuel storage site as well as the barracks for German and subsequently American troops.

Hesse, where Frankfurt is located is another state burdened with pollution from past explosives and munitions production. Not only was the effluent from a major plant discharged directly into a creek and hazardous waste dumped in piles or pits, but postwar detonation of several buildings also caused serious soil and groundwater contamination. Cleanup is still in progress.

In former East Germany, one state has 605 suspected military/ armaments sites, and another state reports 319 sites containing military wastes but expects even more to be discovered. In Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin, seven percent of the area was used for military purposes until the former Soviet forces withdrew in 1994, leaving behind soil contaminated primarily by fuel and lubricants.

The cost of preventing further pollution and cleaning up the sites left from Allied, Soviet and East German military activities was estimated at roughly DM 200 billion (about U.S. $133.3 billion) in 1995. However, this is just a reference point until experts can assess the full extent of damage from explosives, heavy metals, phenols, petroleum hydrocarbons, PCBs, scrap metal including entire tanks and other warfare materials.