There are many environmental pressures caused by human activity that negatively affect the marine environment. One of them is the threat posed by shipwrecks containing various types of fuels and other hazardous substances. In the event of an uncontrolled spill, both the water column and the seabed as well as (in the case of light fuel) beaches and coastal areas may be contaminated. Such an event will have negative impact on functioning of the entire ecosystem. Old wrecks containing unknown amounts of fuel are a global problem that is particularly acute in semi-enclosed seas such as the Baltic Sea.
At the MARE Foundation, since 2018, we have been carrying out activities aimed at increasing public awareness of the issue of fuel remaining in Baltic shipwrecks. We strive to implement preventative measures in Poland as soon as possible, so that we are at the forefront of countries dealing with this pressing environmental problem. In 2021, we published the General Methodology of Oil Removal Operations on Baltic Shipwrecks, which serves as a proposition of a ready-made wreck management program for Poland. This document was developed with the scientific support of SALMO (Salvage and Marine Operations Department) of the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense and is largely based on the E-DBA (Environmental Desk-Based Assessment) method used in the UK and the VRAKA risk assessment methodology developed in Sweden.
A FEW FACTS about the dangerous wrecks of the Baltic Sea
The Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission (HELCOM) estimates that there are between 8,000 and 10,000 shipwrecks in the Baltic Sea. The location of most of them has not yet been identified or confirmed, and at least 100 have been identified as high priority wrecks presenting a potential risk to the marine environment.
Most of the registered wrecks are located in Swedish waters, but a significant number of them are also located on the Polish coast. The records of the Naval Hydrographic Office in Gdynia indicate the presence of 415 wrecks (of which approx. 100 in the Gulf of Gdańsk). Among them, at least 18 may be potentially dangerous to the environment.
In Sweden, Chalmers University in Gothenburg has developed a VRAKA risk assessment methodology for wreck classification, risk management and data collection. As a result, the Swedish Maritime and Water Agency carries out 2 to 3 oil removal operations per year. In Finland, the Institute for Environmental Protection (SYKE) runs a comprehensive wreck management and cleaning program, which also cleans 2-3 wrecks per year. In Poland, in the years 1999-2016, the Maritime Institute in Gdańsk carried out research on the threats posed by wrecks as part of the Finnish review of wrecks commissioned by HELCOM. However, the project did not lead to cleaning of a single wreck, despite documented risks posed by at least 4 wrecks located in the Polish EEZ.
It is extremely important that this issue is addressed as soon as possible and that a dedicated wreck management programs is introduced in all Baltic countries.
DEFINITION OF A DANGEROUS WRECK
The term “dangerous wreck” should be understood as a wreck containing in its tanks (or any other enclosed space) fuel and/or other hazardous substances in quantities greater than 10 m3. To be categorized as dangerous to the environment, such a wreck must also be located less than 10 nautical miles from the coast that is a sand beach, a rocky beach or a cliff.
Depending on such parameters as the amount of fuel, the distance from the coast and the type of the coastline, a concept of the risk degree has been introduced:
- MODERATE OR HIGH RISK WRECK is a shipwreck containing from 10 to 500 m3 of fuel, lying at a distance of 1 to 10 nautical miles from sandy, rocky or gravel beaches;
- VERY DANGEROUS WRECK is a shipwreck containing more than 500 m3 of fuel and lying at a distance less than 1 nautical mile from the shore.
When classifying shipwrecks, apart from formal differentiation, other parameters such as the uniqueness of the site, where the wreck is located (e.g. closeness of natural reserves, protected areas of unique environmental value, presence of endangered fish and other marine or endemic species), as well as many other environmental aspects should be taken into account.
There are two reasons why shipwrecks sunk during two world wars constitute the greatest potential threat to the environment. Firstly, due to the progressive corrosion, 75 years after the end of World War II, it can be assumed that the "expiration date" of these wrecks is approaching fast. Secondly, most countries do not have legislation clearly defining the legal responsibility for the monitoring and investigation of these wrecks as well as for conducting preventative oil recovery operations. More information on this is available in the summary of our Methodology - METHODOLOGY in a NUTSHELL.
Is the threat real?
We speak of a "potential threat" only because it is deferred in time. That doesn't mean it's not real. There is a high risk of leakage in the near future. When this happens, a significant area around the wreck will become contaminated, affecting all living organisms. As a result of such an event, it will also affect the people and economies of surrounding coastal regions.
All available sources of information confirm that the problem of wrecks dangerous to the environment exists and requires systemic action on the part of authorities with prerogatives to protect water purity, as well as to counteract pollution of the shores, especially beaches, which are particularly sensitive ecosystems. Growing awareness of the environmental threats and damage caused by leakages from wrecks has prompted many countries (including Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, the United States and Australia) to implement institutional measures to examine the wrecks and clean the ones considered as the most dangerous.
There are many examples confirming the growing need for action to minimize this threat. In 2018, the U.S. Navy pumped nearly one million liters of heavy oil (mazout) from the Prinz Eugen shipwrecks located near the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. A year later, in August 2019, one hundred years after sinking of "SS Mopang", about 100 tons of fuel leaked from its tanks into the Black Sea. The contaminated area in Bulgarian waters was 2 km wide and 400 meters long.
STUTTGART and FRANKEN
The wreck of the STUTTGART passenger ship, located in the Polish waters of the Baltic Sea, is another important example confirming the existing threat. The shipwreck, sunken in 1943, is located in the Bay of Puck in the Natura 2000 area, two nautical miles from the port of Gdynia.
In 1999, a fuel leakage from the wreckage was recorded for the first time. The research carried out between 2009-2015 shows that the area of contamination with the fuel leaked from Stuttgart has over the years increased 5 times and now amounts to as much as 415 thousand square meters.
The condition of the marine environment in the immediate vicinity of the wreck can be described as a local ecological disaster. Toxicological tests conducted in the area of contamination showed 100% mortality of animals, progressive environmental degradation and a constantly growing zone of contamination. Stuttgart was a passenger ship, so it carried only the fuel needed for its own use.
It is estimated that it was about 300 tons of fuel that leaked to the environment. Despite numerous reports and toxicological data presented to the maritime and environmental administration in Poland, no steps have been taken to contain the spread of oil or remediate the contaminated area.
Another potentially dangerous shipwreck in the Polish waters of the Baltic Sea is the wreck of the tanker T/S FRANKEN, which was chosen by us as the face of our SAVE THE BALTIC - STOP THE OIL SPILLAGE campaign.
FRANKEN is a German supplier from World War II, sunk by the Soviet air force on April 8, 1945 near Hel peninsula. The ship was one of the five twin supply ships of the German Kriegsmarine, along with Dithmarschen, Altmark, Ermland, and Nordmark. In the last phase of the war, Franken was stationed in the Bay of Gdańsk, mainly in the roadstead of Gdynia or Hel, as part of the Thiele battle group.
Franken is a real giant, almost 180 meters long and 22.1 meters wide, with a draft of over 10 meters. If it were to be located in the Old Town of Gdańsk, it would occupy the entire street of Długi Targ.
As a tanker, Franken could carry on board up to 9,500 tons of fuel and 306 tons of lubricating oils of various types. Historical documents (e.g. reports by HQ Kriegsmarine from April 1945) and tests carried out on the wreck by the Maritime Institute in Gdańsk in cooperation with the MARE Foundation (as part of the project "Reduction of the negative impact of fuel spills from the Franken tanker wreck") indicate that at the time of sinking, the ship still had about 1,200 tons of cargo and about 300 tons of marine fuel, i.e. fuel needed for navigation. In total, this amounts to up to 1.5 million liters of fuel still remaining in its tanks.
Due to the corrosion of the wreck, 0.06 to 0.14 mm of steel is lost from the Franken's hull each year. Assuming that for Franken it is 0.1 mm per year (a typical value for this area of the Baltic Sea), after 73 years of being left at the bottom, about 7 mm of steel has already been lost from the hull of the wreck, which means that Franken is on the verge of collapse. When such a collapse occurs, there is a high possibility that an uncontrolled and sudden leakage of fuel from the wreck will take place. Straight into the waters of the Bay of Gdańsk.
Based on the analysis of the currents in the Bay of Gdańsk, it can be assumed that potential spills may destroy the Polish coast and beaches in the area from Piaski to Hel, including numerous reserves, habitats of protected gray seals and extremely valuable Natura 2000 areas located in the Bay area, for example the area of the Bay of Puck and the Hel Peninsula, the area of cliffs and the Orłowa Stone Reef, the area of the Ostoja in the mouth of the Vistula river and the area of the mouth of the Vistula, the Vistula Lagoon and the Vistula Spit. In the event of such scenario coming true, many valuable and protected habitats and species will irreversibly disappear. More information about FRANKEN and our research expedition to this wreck can be found in the document PRELIMINARY ACTION PLAN FOR THE RETRIEVAL ACTIVITIES ON THE FRANKEN SHIPWRECK .
Stuttgart and Franken are only two of a at least 18 potentially dangerous wrecks in the Polish waters of the Baltic Sea.
Most of them have not yet been investigated.
It is necessary to assess the risk posed by wrecks, and then to carry out preventive clean-up actions in the case of wrecks classified as the most dangerous.
Zainteresowanym tematem niebezpiecznych wraków polecamy:
- BALTIC TALKS odcinek 1 - w którym dr inż. Benedykt Hac i Olga Sarna z Fundacji MARE rozmawiają o niebezpiecznych wrakach na dnie Bałtyku i o wynikach kontroli pn. „Przeciwdziałanie zagrożeniom wynikającym z zalegania materiałów niebezpiecznych na dnie Morza Bałtyckiego” przeprowadzonej przez Najwyższą Izbę Kontroli (NIK). Raport pokontrolny NIKu został opublikowany 30 maja 2020, a kontrola która rozpoczęła się w kwietniu 2019 roku. Kontrola NIKu zrealizowana w rezultacie kampanii przeprowadzonej przez Fundację MARE potwierdza pilną potrzebę zajęcia się problemem wraków na Bałtyku oraz wprowadzenia odpowiednich rozwiązań systemowych. Więcej na temat wyników kontroli znajdziecie w naszych aktualnościch - tu i tu.
- Materiały z drugiej edycji Międzynarodowej Konferencji: Niebezpieczne Wraki 2021 zorganizowanej przez MARE w dniu 28 stycznia 2021 roku (online). W czasie konferencji omawialiśmy problem niebezpiecznych wraków w kontekście międzynarodowym. W trakcie wystąpień prelegentów z całego świata mogliście dowiedzieć się jak możemy poradzić sobie z tym problemem oraz jakie działania w tym zakresie podejmują kraje takie jak Wielka Brytania, Australia czy też na wodach bałtyckich - Finlandia. A także jakie działania powinny zostać podjęte jak najszybciej w Polsce. Wystąpienia z konferencji są dostępne na naszym kanale youtube. Prezentacje do pobrania tu. W trakcie konferencji wysątpili: dr Benedykt Hac, Matt Skelhorn (UK Ministry of Defence), Stuart Leather (Waves Group Ltd.), dr Matt Carter (Major Projects Foundation), Michał Latacz (NOA MARINE), Jorma Rytkönen (Finnish Environment Institute SYKE).
- Materiały z pierwszej edycji Międzynarodowej Konferencja Wraki Bałtyku (Warszawa, 27.02.2019). Celem konferencji było zwrócenie uwagi na problem paliwa zalegającego na wrakach w Bałtyku, zarówno na przykładzie wraku T/S Franken, jak i innych wraków klasyfikowanych jako potencjalnie niebezpieczne dla środowiska. W czasie konferencji omówione zostały m.in. negatywne skutki wycieków paliwa, skala problemu, stosowane metody oceny ryzyka, ramy prawne dotyczące podejmowania operacji na wrakach oraz rodzaje dostępnych technologii oczyszczania wraków. W trakcie konferencji wysątpili: dr Benedykt Hac, Justyna Grabowska (Uniwersytet MEdyczny w Gdańsku), Miłosz Grabowski (Instytu Oceanografii Państwowej Akademii Nauk, Marek Reszko (Morska Służba Poszukiwania i Ratownictwa), Frida Åberg (Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management), Juha Flinkman (Finnish Environment Institute/Marine Research Center), Ville Peltokorpi (Finnish Scientific Diving Steering Association), Kari Rinne (Innovator and Entrepreneur at Karinne Ltd), Jacek Liberak (Ardent – Global Marine Service), Matt Skelhorn (UK Ministry of Defence).