About 1,200 tonnes of fuel need to be disposed of
Rocket fuel left behind from the Soviet era is threatening the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad with an environmental disaster, experts are warning.
A report on Russia's NTV news quotes the experts as saying the safest way to tackle the problem is to transfer the fuel by rail from Kaliningrad to mainland Russia, where it can be processed and then disposed of.
Trains equipped with special tanks would need to cross Lithuania, but the government in Vilnius flatly opposes such a venture.
The liquid fuel is long past its expiry date and is corroding its containers, NTV reported.
Kaliningrad is turning into a chemical bomb and leaks of poisonous liquids could result in an ecological catastrophe, the television report said.
The rocket fuel was dumped in Kaliningrad after Soviet and then Russian naval forces withdrew from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland following the end of the USSR, the TV report said. Missile bases in the region were disbanded.
At present about 1,200 tonnes of the fuel await disposal.
"This is an extremely aggressive liquid. The acid causes burns, within the air passages [of humans] too," Vladimir Shchepkov, the former head of a missile fuelling unit, told NTV.
Experts say the fuel should be safely disposed of as soon as possible.
"The action of moisture and vapours from the mixture leads to the destruction of the container," said Anatoliy Mankovskiy, a civil defence and emergencies officer in Gvargeyskiy District, Kaliningrad.
"The out-of-date fuel needs to be disposed of," he adds. "However, the issue of its removal is being solved very slowly."
Kaliningrad does not have the special plants and burial sites to handle the fuel, NTV reports. And Russian diplomats have failed to arrive at an agreement with the Lithuanian Government on transit arrangements for the fuel.
It's happened before
Mr Mankovskiy said an incident involving the leak of rocket fuel occurred in 1997 in the Russian air defence unit he was working in at the time.
"There was dark smoke," a woman, living in a village a kilometre away from the unit, recalled.
"They said it was a fuel leak. They also said a soldier was taken away for emergency medical treatment."
"They came and took samples of the water from all the wells," a man from the same village added. "But no-one got the results. And we don't know to this day whether we should be drinking the water or not."
The consequences of a fuel leak threaten not just Kaliningrad but neighbouring countries too, according to NTV.
Russia's relations with Lithuania were strained earlier this year by the issue of visa requirements for Russians travelling between Kaliningrad and the Russian mainland.
Locals are warned to keep away from stored fuel
Until recently Russians crossing Lithuania on their way to Kaliningrad from Russia, or vice-versa, were required to present nothing more than a simple transit paper at the Lithuanian border.
But as part of its plans to join the European Union, Lithuania began enforcing a strict visa regime favoured by the EU to protect Europe's borders.
Following protests from Russia, a compromise - involving a cheaper and easier-to-obtain travel document for Russians - was reached.
It remains to be seen if this way of resolving disputes through co-operation will be applied to the problem of the ageing missile fuel from their common Soviet past.
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