Sunday, December 10, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Belgium Tries To Remove Toxic Threat: Wwi Poison-Gas Shells


KROMBEKE, Belgium - Rik Sticker was plowing his Flanders sugar-beet field when he heard a clang and smelled something funny.

Rusty metal cylinders lay exposed in the dirt, and chlorine fumes wafted over his tractor.

Only weeks after the final ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of World War II's end, Sticker had stumbled on poison-gas-artillery shells left over from World War I.

Such discoveries are routine for residents in southwestern Belgium, 77 years after what was once known as "The Great War" ended. Almost daily, farmers and construction crews unearth dozens of unexploded shells, many filled with toxic chemicals.

Late last month, Belgium began dismantling more than 21,000 gas shells stockpiled since an international treaty outlawed ocean dumping in 1980. A special army bomb-disposal unit started work at a unique, state-of-the-art disassembly plant built for $19 million.

On a remote site outside the village of Poelkappele, 73 technicians are using robotic drills and laboratory gear to cut open the shells, pump out the chemicals and incinerate the residue.

The army says it will take about 15 years just to destroy the current stockpile, which is a growing health risk because the shells are deteriorating in special outdoor bunkers.

"We still have work for years and years," said Capt. Alfons Vander Mast, commander of the bomb-disposal brigade.

Sticker's find, 80 years after the war's first gas attack, was one of the largest ever. Under the four or five shells pulled up by his tractor lay 540 more, neatly stacked in what had been a British ammunition dump.

Seven nations fired almost 1.5 billion artillery shells during World War I, 95 percent of them filled with conventional explosives. The remaining 5 percent - mostly on the Western Front in Belgium and France - were filled with chlorine gas, mustard gas or other chemicals designed to kill or disable.

Historians estimate as many as 30 percent of the poison-gas shells failed to explode and sank into the mud of the battlefields. The rusty hulks surface as frost moves them about and plows and construction equipment dig ever deeper.

Considering the number of shells, risks are slight. The worst disaster occurred in 1984, when an explosion killed four soldiers stacking conventional shells. Since then, fewer than a dozen farmers and souvenir-hunters have been injured.

Army experts say conventional shells are usually hard to detonate, and small amounts of leaking gas are not serious.

"There is no panic," said Paul Breyne, mayor of Ypres, the largest town in this farming area. "People are very used to this problem."

Even so, the new gas-disposal plant has high-tech safety devices to check for leaking gas, decontaminate equipment and limit damage from accidents.

The government expects operating costs to run $1.7 million a year - all from Belgian taxpayers.

More than 80 percent of the shells found in Belgium are German, with the rest mainly British. But London and Berlin are not helping with the cleanup.

France, another major participant in the war, also is not helping. It is watching its neighbor's experience before deciding whether to build a plant to decontaminate gas shells from old French battlefields.

Vander Mast shrugs off the lack of help.

"If I find a Roman coin in the ground here in Belgium, the Italian government cannot come and say it's theirs," he said. "You are the owner of what you find in your ground."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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