Chemical Weapons Removed from Syria: But to Where?

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced today that the final consignment of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile has been removed. Operating under the oversight of the OPCW and the UN, the removal process involved over 30 countries and the European Union. The success of this process is remarkable; international in scope, the effort has taken place in the midst of an ongoing civil war and within an extremely tight time-frame. Moreover, the achievement represents a major step towards eliminating the last remaining chemical weapons on the planet.

However, the removal of chemical weapons from Syria leads to another question: where are these chemicals being removed to, exactly? How are they being disposed of? What safety risks does the actual elimination process pose to involved countries? These are questions that have plagued Greece, Malta, Albania, and Italy ever since the OPCW outlined its plan for removal. The final steps toward elimination are not to be overlooked, and for the Mediterranean community, its ramifications stretch far beyond Syria into areas of direct impact such as fishing and tourism industries.

The OPCW/UN removal plan begins in the Port of Latakia, the principal port city of Syria. From Latakia, “Class B precursor” chemicals (chemical agents that are classed only as hazardous industrial products) are being transported to Finland, Germany, Britain and the United States where the Finnish company Ekokem OY AB, the German company GEKA, and the French-based corporation Veolia Environmental Services Technical Solutions will incinerate the chemicals. These groups have assured the public that the Class B precursor chemicals are “standard commercial industrial chemicals transported and widely used every day.”

The more dangerous materials -including 21 tons of mustard gas- are being loaded onto Danish and Norwegian cargo ships and sailed to the Southern Italian port Gioia Tauro. In Gioia Tauro, they will be transferred to the MV Cape Ray, a US Maritime Administration ship containing two Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems (FDHS) below its deck, and destroyed at sea. FDHS are mobile stations that destroy chemical weapons by using reagents such as bleach and chlorine. FDHS technology is not new; the U.S. has used it for years to neutralize its own chemical weapons without incidence. However, the neutralization process does create waste byproducts, and it is this waste that troubles the Mediterranean.

Because no country agreed to the neutralization of Syria’s most dangerous chemicals on their territory, the process is set to take place in the international waters of the Mediterranean, in an unspecified location between the Greek island Gavdos and Malta. The OPCW estimates that neutralization aboard the Cape Ray should be complete within the next 60 days.  According to the OPCW, all waste from the hydrolysis process will be safely stored on board the Cape Ray and no hydrolysis byproducts will be released into the sea or air. Department of Defense engineers have said that even if a spill were to occur, it would be contained to the ship’s main deck and that any exhaust would be neutralized before release.

Despite these assurances, however, 5,000 Greek residents have gathered in Crete to protest the destruction of chemical weapons in the Mediterranean. Residents from the island of Gavdos boycotted European Parliament elections to protest the OPCW/UN destruction plan, while politicians from Malta and Italy have spoken out against the process. An online petition has been circulated and has collected thousands of signatures.  Posters sardonically advertising “Welcome to Chemical Crete” have been designed. Overall, it seems that the chemical weapons removal plan, while bringing a shred of light to Syria, has brought only fear and worry to the Mediterranean.

Unfortunately, the UN and OPCW have done little to assuage these Mediterranean fears through transparency, information sharing, or including key stakeholders in the planning process. After the hydrolysis process is complete, chemical waste resulting from the Cape Ray will be transferred to land sites in Germany, Britain, Finland, and Texas for destruction. However, there is still a strong sentiment among many island residents that hydrolysis waste will eventually be dumped into the sea, destroying living organisms. This misconception demonstrates the lack of detailed, publicly available information regarding where the chemical waste will be destroyed following the neutralization process. Additionally, Mediterranean residents point out that aside from malfunctions in the FDHS technology, inclement weather, rough waters, or a potential attack could all result in a byproduct spill. FDHS has never been tested on open water in the past, and groups including environmental NGOs, tourism agencies, and fishermen coalitions all view the lack of testing as a big risk.

The UN, OPCW, and key member states need to devote more time and energy to reassuring Mediterranean stakeholders of the stringent security and safety steps that are and will be taken to ensure safe and secure neutralization of the chemicals.

In December 2013, the U.S. Department of Defense hosted a media event aboard the Cape Ray to educate news outlets about the FDHS. Although the ship is now en route, the U.S. could create a similar event in which news reporters from Mediterranean countries ask Department of Defense officials questions regarding the safety of the FDHS process. Additionally, U.S. embassies in countries like Greece and Italy could help inform the public by hosting public forums on the destruction plan. Information could be provided to both tourism and fishing industries, as well as to environmental and maritime agencies in the affected countries. Roundtables between various environmental NGOs and governmental officials could provide greater clarity about the potential risks of the FDHS and what is being done to reduce them. Such meetings could also raise awareness with regards to the importance of oceanic preservation.

The chemical weapons removal process in Syria has stood as an unprecedented achievement in the face of numerous and ongoing obstacles. However, the removal itself has raised other concerns, especially in the regions to where chemicals are being moved. The United States, OPCW and UN should not forget to address Mediterranean concerns as the process moves forward.