Swiss lakes used to dump tons of unwanted ammo

Swiss lakes used to dump tons of unwanted ammo
By Clare Chapman in Zurich
(Filed: 05/12/2004)

They may look like the stuff of chocolate boxes, but for decades some of Switzerland's most beautiful lakes have concealed a disturbing secret: thousands of tons of weapons dumped by the Swiss army and the country's arms industry.

In a revelation which has shocked many Swiss people and alarmed the tourist industry, the defence ministry has admitted the full extent of unwanted munitions tipped into the country's lakes over the past 70 years.

Between 1935 and 1966 one military machinery manufacturer, Oerlikon Buehrle, dumped 90 tons of ammunition into Lake Zurich - a popular spot for water sports and swimming.

Lake Constance is among other tourist jewels into which guns and artillery, gas mask filters, stoves, oil, photo equipment, scrap metal and barbed wire have been dumped.

The full litany of dangerous military material and waste emerged when a deadline passed for local authorities to publish full information on water quality, under a law enacted in 1998.

Many Swiss people have been shocked to hear that their government not only knew about the dumping of military waste by private contractors but also deposited vast quantities of unwanted munitions itself.

Alexander Stuessi, the deputy head of the military planning permission department at Switzerland's Defence Ministry (VBS), said: "We have known about the waste since 1992 and since then have been looking into what is best to do with it. Our conclusion so far is that it is best left where it is." The government estimates that 8,210 tons of ammunition lies beneath the lakes' clear surfaces. More than half of that is thought to lie in Lake Thun which covers 18 square miles in the Bernese Alps and is the site of a state arms factory.

Richard Lehner, a spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund, said that Switzerland needed a clear inventory of the waste in its lakes, and an assessment of the risks posed to the country's inhabitants - 80 per cent of whose drinking water is drawn from the lakes.

Dr Matthias Wuthrich, a toxicologist who played a key role in the campaign for more information on weapons dumping, said: "The materials that are lying abandoned on the lake beds are certain to corrode over time releasing all manner of substances, including nitrates. It is vital to decontaminate them."

The practice began after the Second World War when Swiss army warehouses were full of unused and surplus military equipment. After several explosions at weapons stores killed dozens of people, the government decided to get rid of the surplus in 1948.

Campaigners say that munitions waste has already harmed the lakes' wildlife, with evidence of genital mutations among fish. The government, however, believes that attempting to remove the abandoned munitions could worsen the problem by causing them to break up or explode.

Mr Stuessi said that the tourist industry would not be damaged unduly. "The problem is likely to be just as prevalent in other countries like Austria - it's just that nobody there is talking about it."
Happened everywhere. Although those countries with a coast generally dumped stuff in the sea rather than lakes. There's also huge amounts of stuff buried too.
Austria is mentioned, but Germany, especially lakes behind Checkpoint Alpha and Eastwards, have huge amounts of ex soviet ordanance in some Lakes

There are also German Lakes that still contain Aircraft with Bombloads. I seem to remember a story about a Halifax with everything on board, a Lancaster in Northen Germany and something in Dummer Lake I believe
This makes the top ten list of stupid things I've read this week.

If they started doing this in the 30s, some of that ammunition might be primed with fulminate of mercury, a ruinously toxic, dangerous contaminant.

They should have contacted me first. I'd have been glad to take the stuff off their hands.
Apparently there's quite a few concerns about tons of explosives that have been dumped between Scotland and NI and a freighter that was sunk in the Thames Estuary. From the reports that I've read the main concern about the Irish Sea dump is that it has shells of Mustard and Nerve agents in there too! 8O
Absolutely nothing new about this story. As Cdo Gunner has pointed out, every one did this. We were lucky enough to be able to dump ours in the sea. Incidentally, we only stopped deep sea dumping in 1993 or 1994.

There is an ammo ship in the Thames estuary that was sunk in WW2. I can't remember its name, but I think it was named after a US president. Every now & then a journo drags up a story about what a disaster it is in the making.

I doubt if there is any mercury fulminate in the stuff in the Swiss lakes. It was rarely used in munitions after the introduction of safer primary explosives around the turn of the century. However, even if they still used it, assuming the Swiss did the same as us (and they not known for their inefficiency), they would have removed the initiating and explodering systems from munitions before dumping them.

This is all just educated guesswork and, as ever, I remain willing to be corrected. 8)
Expanding on Sir Rowley Birkin QC details:

The area between Scotland & Northern Ireland is called Beaufort’s Dyke

House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 20 October 1995 (pt 1)

Hazardous Waste (Dumping at Sea)

Mr. Llew Smith: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the total quantities of (a) toxic chemical wastes, (b) surplus explosives, (c) redundant biological and chemical weapons stores and (d) radioactive wastes disposed of into the North Atlantic, Irish sea and English channel. [37661]

Mr. Soames: Complete records of past sea dumping operations are not available. In particular, it is not possible to identify the total tonnages or precise natures of conventional munitions which were disposed of by this means. However, surviving records indicate that approximately 120,000 tonnes of UK-manufactured chemical warfare munitions and some 17,000 tonnes of captured German aerial bombs containing the nerve agent tabun were dumped in sealed hulks scuttled in deep water in the North Atlantic, and 14,000 tons of phosgene-charged munitions were disposed of in Beaufort dyke in the north channel. There are no records of biological agents having been disposed of at sea. Details of the UK's sea disposal programme for low and intermediate-level radioactive wastes, including wastes generated by MOD establishments, were contained in a report commissioned by the Department of the Environment titled "Report of the Independent Review of Disposal of Radioactive Waste in the Northeast Atlantic" published by HMSO in November 1984.
House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 20 Nov 1995 (pt 2)

Munitions (Dumping at Sea)

Dr. David Clark: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence (1) if his Department will list the weapons material dumped in Hurd Deep in the English channel; [613]

(2) if his Department will give details of the sea dumping disposal programme conducted by his Department in the dumping site 400 miles south-west of Lands End; [614]

(3) what records relating to chemical weapons and munitions dumping operations in Hurd Deep until 1973 and off the continental shelf until January 1993 exist in his Department. [615]

Mr. Soames: No chemical warfare munitions were disposed of at these sites. Details of sea disposals of CW munitions were provided in my previous answer of 20 October 1995, Official Report, col 387. In the immediate post war period approximately 25,000 tons of British and 50,000 tons of captured German conventional munitions were dumped at Hurd Deep but no record of subsequent dumping operations at this site until its use was discontinued in 1973 appear to have survived. Surviving records which have been identified to date show that between 1973 and 1985 up to 2,000 tons of conventional munitions were disposed of annually at the deep water dump site situated approximately 400 miles south west of Lands End, off the continental shelf. From 1985 until October 1992 when the sea dumping of munitions was terminated the annual disposals were as follows, 904 tons; 1,882 tons; 1,565 tons; 3,244 tons; 1,544 tons; 1,775 tons; 1,093 tons and 8,764 tons.

Dr. Clark: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence (1) what is his assessment of the legality of the 1976 emergency dump in Beaufort's dyke in relation to the Oslo convention for the prevention of marine pollution by dumping from ships and aircraft; [612]

(2) if he will list the weapons material dumped during the 1976 emergency dump in Beaufort's dyke in the North sea. [611]

Mr. Soames: The emergency MOD disposal in 1976 involved two cases of heavily corroded 40mm shells. The emergency dumping of certain waste materials subject to the provisions of the Oslo convention is permissible if the waste in question cannot be disposed of on land without "unacceptable danger or damage". Given their recorded condition, the disposal of these munition items on land would have constituted such an "unacceptable danger".

20 Nov 1995 : Column: 17

Dr. Clark: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans his Department has to monitor the chemical weapons and munitions dumping sites in the sea surrounding the British Isles. [610]

Mr. Soames: My Department has no plans to monitor disused munition dump sites.

Dr. Clark: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what was the date of the last sea-dumping by his Department of surplus ordnance off the British Isles. [446]

Mr. Soames: My Department ceased all sea-dumping of conventional ammunition and explosive stocks in October 1992 in line with the OSPAR convention which came into force on 1 January 1993.
The ammo ship in the Thames estuary is 'The Richard Montgomery'

for a few of the articles.

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