German WWII shipwrecks off Polish coast pose environmental threat

WWII German shipwrecks lying off the Polish coast pose an environmental threat, the German Foreign Ministry has told the Polish Press Agency (PAP), but removing them risks the “spontaneous release of hazardous material.”

Polish divers uncover WWII German steamer wreckage

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At least 100 wrecks have been classified by Poland’s Mare Foundation, an organisation established to protect marine ecosystems in the Baltic, as a “high priority” because they contain significant amounts of fuel that poses a threat to the natural environment.

One vessel of particular concern is the Franken. The ship went down with 2,700 tonnes of oil, plus its own fuel, after being attacked by Soviet aircraft in 1945.

Most of the ship’s storage tanks are believed to be intact. If the tanks were ruptured during a salvage operation, hundreds of tonnes of oil could spill out, potentially contaminating water and beaches in the vicinity of Gdańsk Bay.

“The German federal government is aware of the problem of ecological pollution,” a German foreign ministry spokesman told PAP. But he added that “removing dangerous substances, such as heavy oil, from the wreckage has not yet been sufficiently tried and tested.”

He said, salvage efforts “carry with them the risk of spontaneous release of hazardous substances.”

He added that international teams of scientists are now working on how to retrieve dangerous substances from the Baltic without causing a major incident.

Another German ship, the Stuttgart, lies in the Bay of Puck and has been leaking fuel since 1999. The wreckage and the surrounding area have been the subject of numerous research efforts by such institutions as the Medical University of Gdansk and the Maritime Institute in Gdańsk.

A 2015 survey showed that the area of contamination from the Stuttgart had grown five-fold since the leak was discovered, and measured 415,000 square metres with the condition of the environment in the immediate vicinity being described as a local ecological catastrophe.