by Natalie Salat
The Department of National Defence wants the readers of Legion Magazine, and particularly World War II veterans—to help identify where thousands of tonnes of chemical and biological (CB) warfare agents were dumped off Canada’s coasts at the end of WW II. Nearly 60 years on from the war’s end, these deadly agents, such as mustard gas and lewisite, remain under the sea.
During WW II, Canada was one of the world’s leading producers of CB weapons (it no longer produces them). Though the military subjected its own soldiers to mustard gas and other chemical weapons experiments, it did not actually use them on the enemy. The country was left with untold amounts of toxic munitions after the war, which it got rid of by dumping them in the ocean or by land burial. “In the past, Canada and its allies disposed of military material in a manner that was acceptable at the time,” explained General Ray Hénault, the Canadian military’s chief of defence staff. As time went on, and environmental awareness increased, national and international laws were established. The 1972 London Convention prohibited the disposal of CB warfare agents at sea, but many countries had by this point dumped hundreds of thousands of tonnes of the material into their waters. Not only Canada, but the U.S., Britain, Russia, Denmark and Belgium (post WW I) along with Germany and other nations must now deal with the aftermath.
Many questions need answering: what kind and what amount of warfare agents were dumped? Where exactly are they? And, crucially, what effects are these dump sites exerting on human and environmental health?
For years, Myles Kehoe has been trying to get answers. This antique dealer from Margaree Forks in Cape Breton, N.S., became an activist on the issue of Canada’s military dump sites by chance. In a local home he was visiting in 1990, Kehoe discovered a 1946 newspaper clipping describing a shipment of mustard gas that was destined for the island and the furor it caused. “I come from a fishing family and I went to my father and asked him what he knew about it. Bingo, it started.”
Since then, Kehoe and another concerned Cape Bretoner, dentist Michael Ojoleck, have been researching munitions dumps through old newspapers, government documents, films and maps as well as interviews with retired fishermen, former soldiers and anyone who might have witnessed or conducted the disposals. “There’s bombs, depth charges, warheads … all kinds of torpedoes (in coastal dumpsites). We have got a lot of information from retired military people. Ask for their help,” he urged in a phone interview. “These people put it there, they know what they did, what the locations are.”
Largely as a result of Kehoe’s and Ojoleck’s efforts, including a petition to the Auditor General in 2002 and a Senate hearing in September 2003, the federal government began the Warfare Agents Disposal project to investigate chemical and biological munitions disposal sites within the Canadian jurisdiction. According to WAD project manager Daniel Godbout, of DND’s directorate of environmental engineering management, the military had kept some records regarding its CB munitions, “but there was not a combined database that included acquisition, usage and disposal. The first phase (of this project) is to try to put a database together.”
In July 2003, DND awarded the $1.4 million contract for an archival review to ADGA Group Consultants of Ottawa. At the time, then Minister of National Defence John McCallum declared, “This phase of the project presents a significant challenge due to the age and amount of information involved, but the department is confident that it will vastly improve its understanding of these past activities as a result of this review.”
Godbout said six sites—four on land and two at sea—had so far been definitively identified by the project as munitions dumps. Three of the four land sites are at Canadian Forces Base Suffield in Alberta, and are in the process of being cleaned up, he noted. The fourth is at an undisclosed location (municipal authorities and the landowner have been alerted). As for the known sites at sea, one is a shipwreck in the Atlantic, at a depth of 3,000 metres. Godbout would not disclose the other location.
Kehoe and Ojoleck claim there are many more sites than the government is acknowledging. Asked whether there could be more, Godbout said, “We’re still investigating. We know there were other sites on the West Coast—and they’re being investigated right now. They (the sailors) were told go in a certain direction, and when they got to (the required) depth, drop it. It’s a lot further from knowing exactly where (the agents) were dumped.”
ADGA has until April 2005 to complete its database. Meanwhile, phase two of the WAD project is going on concurrently, added Godbout, and that is “to identify a methodology to assess risk to human health and the environment.” Scientists in Europe are working on such a methodology. “Once it’s been vetted… then we’ll assess the sites against (it). That will determine whether or not any action is required (to clean up the sites).”
Kehoe questions why it took so long for DND to act in the first place, and why the known dump sites have not been designated as restricted areas, given the possibility that they might be causing health and environmental damage. “My brother is a fisherman, and he’s fishing in it every day. We notice now that in certain areas all the crab have dual sex, they light up at night, have cancerous lesions… I can’t say the mustard gas dumps are the cause. I’m saying, ‘Maybe you should look at them.’ We’re asking that there be no deep-sea diving or recreational diving, no dragging (for fish), and no oil and gas exploration in these areas.” Among the areas he would like to see as off-limits are sites near Sable Island in Nova Scotia and Argentia and Stephenville in Newfoundland.
The WAD project Web site, www.wadproject.forces.gc.ca, asserts that DND has recommended that temporary danger areas be established around deep ocean disposal sites and that these areas be marked on the appropriate nautical charts. But Godbout said the Canadian Hydrographic Service and the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board—whose joint decision it would be—opted not to amend the charts. “They may decide to mark future charts (but) they won’t make a revision because of that.”
The fact that the military’s known dump sites have not been put off limits to fishing, oil exploration and other activities is “quite strange,” observed Dr. Tine Missiaen, an expert on munitions dump sites who works at the University of Ghent in Belgium. “Normally that is what happens in most countries.” Missiaen led the 2001 Paardenmarkt Site Evaluation in Belgium, which investigated a WW I mustard gas disposal site off the country’s 60-kilometre coast with the full cooperation of the Belgian government. That site has been restricted. The scientist added that her government has become very open about this issue. “They’ve realized that’s the only way you can handle a problem like this, and the only way you can avoid too much public concern.”
For years, however, there has been scant research into the health and environmental effects of munitions dump sites, and military secrecy has hampered efforts. “Most research teams are military or defence agencies, and they aren’t too keen on getting their results out in the open,” commented Missiaen. “So it’s pretty hard to know what’s been done.”
That said, she added, “I don’t think there are many sites that would call for clearance, where chemicals would have to be removed. But you have to know first of all what is there and keep surveying over it. Quite often we don’t know what the (environmental) reaction will be, if the munitions are corroding slowly.” Next year, a major project in Europe—the Modelling of Ecological Risks Related to Sea-Dump Weapons—will be the first international collaboration to investigate the risks of different sites at different depths in the Baltic Sea, a dumping ground for thousands of tonnes of CB weapons.
As for the Canadian project, Missiaen called it “a first step.” Godbout maintained that DND has waited until now to seek help from Canada’s veterans and former scientists because, “We wanted to start building the database first, and then go to the public. As (ADGA) is building the database they’re going through archives and trying to get in touch with people who are still alive who had anything to do with it. If we could build a credible database that way, we could have stopped. Obviously there’s a lot of information that doesn’t exist in archives.”
The DND has published an ad appealing for information (see inside back cover) in Legion Magazine. “Through that hopefully we can reach some of the people that have been involved.” Anyone with information relevant to the WAD Project can contact the Contractor—Historical Review, Compilation and Verification, ADGA Group at (613)-288-0262 or toll-free at 1-866-923-2342 (WAD-ADGA), [email protected]