Poelkapelle, Belgium — ALFONS Vander Mast collects antiques. But the relics he handles are deadly.
Captain Vander Mast is one of the Belgian Army's top bomb hunters. He is part of a special military unit that does nothing but dig up munitions left over from World War I, including about 20 tons a year of aging chemical weapons.
``I'm afraid these things don't get any better with age,'' Vander Mast says, as he leads the way onto a concrete storage platform at the Army's Bomb Disposal Center, near this tiny Belgian village.
Stacked on the open platform, like so many pieces of firewood, is row upon row of old chemical artillery shells. The storage platforms are not enclosed, although the bombs are sheltered by aluminum roofs to keep the sun off. This is crucial, since high temperatures can cause the gas inside the metal casings to expand, forcing out the lead filling plugs used on many World War I chemical arms.
Vander Mast stoops in front of the stack to point out features on one of them. The slightest brush from his pencil, however, and half of a badly corroded fuse crumbles to the ground. Such disturbances pose no threat of sparking an explosion, he says, but do underline the problem of stockpiling such weapons.
Once exposed to the air, the decay of the metal shells accelerates. Officials regularly find leaking weapons tucked among the stockpile. These are usually placed in airtight canisters. Leaking chemicals have burned the hands of soldiers handling the arms, but no bomb-squad fatalities have been linked to such exposure.
Finds from Flanders to France
EXPERTS calculate that three out of 10 projectiles used in World War I never exploded. This explains the high number of unexploded armaments being found seven decades after the war.
In the past, the Belgians sealed old chemical munitions in concrete and tipped them into the sea. But in recent years, as environmental objections to ocean dumping mushroomed, they stockpiled the armaments.
They now have about 150 tons of vintage chemical arms - all stored at this small base in Flanders - the region where some of the most brutal battles of World War I took place.
But as the commander of the bomb-disposal unit points out, ``If you go to the other side of the border, it doesn't vanish.'' Col. Cory Deseyn is referring to the sweep of the World War I battlefront, stretching from Flanders in Belgium to northern Italy.
In France, weapon-disposal teams dig up 80 tons of old chemical weapons a year - German, British, and French shells. ``The stuff is still in good shape - it's still dangerous,'' says Rene Teller of Protection Civile, the agency charged with disposal.
Fishermen in the Baltic Sea have burned their hands pulling up remnants of German chemical weapons hastily sunk by the allies after World War II. Even in Britain, where chemical weapons were produced but never used, authorities stumble across the occasional cache of toxic munitions. The latest find was last year: 150 chemical artillery shells and mortars at an abandoned World War I arms depot in Hampshire.
West Germany and Britain both have facilities that dismantle and destroy old chemical arms. The United States is developing a similar capability - aimed mainly at destroying huge stockpiles of obsolete weapons stored at eight sites across the continental US.
But it's in Europe that the legacy of chemical weapons production seems to linger most dangerously.
A 70-year legacy
THE first use of poison gas in World War I was in Belgium - just a few kilometers from Poelkapelle. On a warm April afternoon in 1915, German troops opened the valves on 6,000 canisters of liquid chlorine, sending a greenish-yellow cloud wafting over French positions at Langemark. In a single day, 5,000 French troops died. Another 10,000 were injured, and the era of large-scale chemical warfare had dawned.
Huge stocks of chemical arms were produced during both World Wars - but only used in the first.
Potential disposal problems never entered the calculus of European war planners. In the scramble to clean up battlefields after World War I, the Belgians pushed unexploded bombs into trenches and buried them. Chemical armaments got no special attention. As a result, bomb-removal teams today often find conventional and chemical bombs in the same hole. Belgian officials figure about 10 percent of the weapons they dig up are chemical.
``Whenever there's a big road construction project anywhere in this area, we get a lot of calls,'' says Vander Mast.
The problem is especially acute in environmentally sensitive West Germany. Hitler's Army not only produced chemical weapons, but also developed more deadly nerve agents. After the war, the allies seized nearly 270,000 tons of chemical weapons, packing most of it on boats that were sunk in the North and Baltic Seas.
In M"unster, a village nestled among the fields of northern Germany's L"uneburg Heath, a massive cleanup is under way at the site of one of world's first chemical weapons facilities.
Chemical bombs tested in the surrounding hills during both World Wars are still being recovered. Some patches of ground are so contaminated with old poisons that no one is allowed to dig in certain areas without special protective gear.
The West German Ministry of Defense operates a high-temperature furnace on the site, but admits it will take years to complete the cleanup. Bombs are X-rayed - to help identify their contents - then sawed open to separate the poisons from the explosive charges.
In September, a powerful explosion rocked the plant after workers failed to fully separate explosive charges from the chemicals. No one was injured, but the plant will be closed for at least six months for repairs.
Getting rid of old weapons isn't cheap
`PEOPLE are discovering that it's much more expensive to destroy chemical weapons than it is to produce them,'' says Dr. Adolf-Henning Frucht, a chemical weapons expert in West Berlin.
Indeed, even old research facilities can spark controversy. In the Spandau section of West Berlin, officials have launched a massive cleanup at the site of one of the Third Reich's main chemical weapons research laboratories.
In the confused closing days of World War II, the Germans scurried to move their chemical stockpiles away from the advancing Soviet Army. It's thought that many dangerous chemicals and nerve agents ended up in a well or were buried by the retreating German forces. No one knows how long it will take to do the excavation - or what they'll find.
Even after years in the ground, the chemical contents of bombs can be highly toxic.
``Chemicals lose some potency over time, but not enough,'' says Gerhard Magin, the West German chemist at M"unster who specializes in disposal issues. The rate of decay depends on many factors - such as the type of compound and whether it is exposed to the atmosphere.
Bombs filled with phosgene and hydrogen cyanide, materials used in World War I, are as poisonous now as they were when produced, Dr. Magin says.
In 1984, workers at a British military cemetery in Ypres, Belgium, noticed that a swath of grass between the headstones had turned brown. The problem was traced to a leaking mustard-gas shell buried deep in the ground. Local residents often refer to ``dead spots'' - patches in fields and forests where nothing grows.
It's the explosives, however, that make old chemical and conventional armaments dangerous to handle.
In 1986, a conventional bomb exploded at the Belgian Army's disposal center in Poelkapelle, killing four soldiers. Investigators still aren't sure what caused the blast, although it is known that the soldiers died while trying to move some armaments.