Next month, on the 22nd, it will be the 99th anniversary of the start of modern chemical warfare. The salient around the Flemish town of Ieper offered the perfect location: its northern edge was the only place along the Western front where German troops did not face the prevailing south-westerly winds that could have blown back the chlorine cloud. Later, of course, shells replaced gas cloud attacks.
Shells imply depots, including ones close to the trenches. In Flanders it is not uncommon to still uncover duds—shells that failed to detonate because of malfunction or simply because they got buried in very soft mud. Each year, some ten metric tonnes (give and take a few tonnes) of unexploded ordnance is recovered and taken to a demolition site near the village of Poelkapelle. However, statistics usually shoot up when a former underground storage bunker still full with munition is discovered. Such was the case earlier this week, when a farmer near the infamous town of Passendale (Passchendale) was transforming a meadow to grow crops. Since then the bomb disposal unit of the Belgian Armed Forces have already recovered over 200 German shells, a large portion of which are chemical (mostly mustard agent). They expect to unearth plenty more.
Nothing new really, if the story did not have a typical Belgian twist in the tale. Today, it emerged that the installation to dismantle liquid chemical warfare agents from the First World War broke down in the summer of 2012 and has not yet been repaired. As a consequence, some 3,200 chemical shells have since then been stockpiled at the Poelkapelle site. And the number is steadily growing.
Typically, nobody outside the Ministry of Defence was aware of the breakdown. Not even the Mayor of Poelkapelle (who belongs to the same party as Minister of Defence Pieter De Crem, the Flemish Christian Democrats). The ministry’s spokeswoman assured that the Poelkapelle site has sufficient safe storage space until 2016 (which is probably true, given the way the munition had been stored before the construction of the dismantlement facility). However, she also immediately engaged in a typical Belgian blame game: the regions did not cough up the money to have the installation repaired.
Just a little word of explanation here. Virtually everybody is aware of the linguistic divisions in Belgium. One way of managing conflicts has been to create three regions: the Flemish, Walloon and Brussels regions. They enjoy considerable autonomy in the organisation of economic affairs and have exclusive competences in environmental matters. The latter aspect explains why Belgium required four ratifications of the Chemical Weapons Convention by the federal and the three regional parliaments. However, the chemical weapon problem is essentially a Flemish one as the First World War frontline ran almost exclusively through the province of West Flanders. Now of course, why should the two other regions assist the wealthiest region of the three?
In addition, the Ministry of Defence is a federal department and it bears responsibility for the dismantlement of the old chemical munitions. A unit of the Armed Forces undertakes the task inside a military domain. So, why should Flanders chip in? Net outcome: installation out of action for more than 20 months. Without public knowledge.
Of course, the story takes a different turn. Belgium had been approached to destroy some of Syria’s chemical precursors and possibly its 20-tonne stash of mustard. The Defence Minister declined. One—very plausible—reason circulating last year was that even under the best of circumstances issuing an environmental permit takes at least a year, which was far too long in view of the tight deadlines adopted by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN Security Council. However, in a reply to a parliamentary question on 24 January, the Defence Minister asserted that the installation in Poelkapelle was not suited for modern warfare agents, such as the nerve agent VX. Yes, probably true (even though by that time everybody knew that the elimination concerned precursors and not warfare agents, and that in the context of Belgian involvement we were thinking of the commercial incinerator near Antwerp, which, incidentally, was a consortium partner that bid for the OPCW contracts). He did not refer to Syria’s mustard agent, which the installation could have processed.
Of course, the installation had broken down. He did not mention this trivial fact.