With the pending neutralisation of the last 90 tonnes of Syria's declared chemical weapons stock, the Cape Ray will have completed a complex and sensitive mission.
By H.K. Tzanis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 26/06/14
The Danish navy vessel HDMS Esbern Snare is seen outside the southern Cypriot coastal town of Larnaca. It led the Danish-Norwegian-British task force involved in the removal of Syria's chemical weapons under the OPCW joint mission. [AFP]
The last consignment of Syria's chemical weapons -- shipped out of the war-torn country on Monday (June 23rd) -- will be neutralised aboard the same US Navy contracted vessel that has successfully handled nearly 1,100 metric tonnes of toxic material surrendered under a UN-brokered deal.
The high-profile MV Cape Ray mission attracted increased international attention and scrutiny since its inception, given that it neutralises the chemical agents -- through a process known as hydrolysis -- while plying the international waters of the Mediterranean.
"A major landmark in this mission has been reached today [Monday]. The last of the remaining chemicals identified for removal from Syria were loaded … aboard the Danish ship Ark Futura," Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) director Ahmet Üzümcü told reporters in The Hague, where the intergovernmental body is headquartered.
With the pending neutralisation of the last 90 tonnes of declared Syrian chemical weapons, the Cape Ray will have completed a complex and sensitive mission, as the on-board neutralisation came after several western countries declined to accept the toxic materials. It also came amid vocal opposition by environmental advocacy groups in the east Mediterranean, particularly on the large and tourism-dependent island of Crete.
Speaking to SETimes from The Hague, OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan emphasised that "nothing goes into any sea from the Cape Ray." Instead, he said all of the effluent and by-products from the neutralisation process are stored on board, whereas all necessary input and re-agents -- including fresh water -- have been previously loaded and are also stored on the vessel.
"It is quite clear and understood that the Cape Ray will capture everything … The vessel is what I call a maximum security prison for chemicals," he added.
The process has had critics. Evangelos Gidarakos, the director of the laboratory of toxic and hazardous waste management at the Technical University of Crete, said he is concerned the operation is taking place in the Mediterranean, which is "a closed sea, and one already burdened by toxic waste in some places and with unsuitable weather conditions."
The Crete-based researcher said he is concerned that the mission will potentially lead to other maritime WMD neutralisation operations in the future, and, in the same sea region.
Gidarakos told SETimes that the most toxic materials should have been directly shipped to facilities on land for incineration and subsequent processing, although he acknowledged that such a course of action would have resulted in political fallout in prospective host countries and higher costs.
Luhan said the routes of vessels involved in the Syrian chemical weapon operation, as well as the schedule for the entire process falls within the province of the US Navy -- in consultation with the Italian government -- as the former is tasked with receiving and neutralising the chemical weapons and all related agents handed over by Syrian authorities.
Luhan said OPCW has been sensitive to environmental concerns and briefed international environmental groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and others, while he personally gave interviews to Greek journalists to provide details of the mission.
No European country volunteered to neutralise toxic materials on its territory, while the US subsequently proposed a "proven, impeccable technology, hydrolysis," he said.
Authorities are neutralising the chemicals using proven hydrolysis technology. All waste from the hydrolysis process would be safely and properly stored on board until it is disposed of at commercial facilities to be determined by OPCW. Officials emphasised that no hydrolysis by-products will be released into the sea or air. The most sensitive work is being done in chambers on board the ship that are negatively pressurised -- meaning that no air can escape the room during the neutralisation process. The technology ensures that the air and sea environment will remain secure as the chemicals are being neutralised.
Continuing conflict in Syria and now Iraq makes it all the more important that Syria's chemical weapons are neutralised before they fall in the wrong hands, said Athens-based security analyst Ioannis Michaletos.
"Despite vigilance by authorities, this is a possibility, given the fact that there are myriads of criminal groups and extremists in the region, and there are well-established contraband networks that can facilitate importation of such weapons from the Middle East, as they do for drugs and weapons currently," he told SETimes.
How can the success of this mission serve as a model for future missions to work co-operatively to dispose of such weapons? Add your thoughts in the comments field below.