Fallout At Gagetown

September 1, 2006 by Natalie Salat



From top: Jim Burke; Bill Moore training at Gagetown in the ’60s; Gloria Sellar flanked by vets Ernest Simmons, Jim Cadger, Grant Payne, Ernie Ryer and local politician Pat Lynch.

“Jimmy was the same as me, a footslogger out there. We were exposed to the mud and the crap. He was directly sprayed.”

Grant Payne, a former infantry soldier with the Black Watch, looks across the table at Jim Burke as he speaks about their service at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick during the mid-1960s. The “crap” he is referring to has nothing to do with organic compost.

When Burke was driving one of three jeeps while on a manoeuvre at Gagetown–it was 1966 or 1967, it’s been so long he can’t recall–a fixed-wing aircraft flew over the formation, spraying a whitish-grey liquid that “left us in the equivalent of a fog,” says Burke, now a resident of Saint John. “It dampened our clothing and skin.” Over the next three weeks, the bushes and trees turned reddish-orange, then brown, and “all grasses in the spray area were dead.”

The CF veteran now suffers from a slew of health problems, ranging from heart trouble and congestive lung disorder to depression. He says he was never told by supervisors what he was sprayed with. At the time he knew nothing of Agent Orange.

One year ago the Canadian government acknowledged that the deadly defoliant, most notoriously used in the Vietnam War, was sprayed at the training base in tests conducted with the U.S. military in 1966 and 1967. This past June, the government confirmed that the herbicide spraying program at Gagetown over the last five decades has been a lot more extensive.

With its epicentre in the small town of Oromocto, right next to the base, the whole saga is becoming an increasingly complex tapestry of facts and decidedly strong emotions.

First, some facts: CFB Gagetown, a world-class military training facility, stretches over 1,100 square kilometres, including 65 lakes and 251 streams. A veritable cocktail of chemicals, including Agents Orange, Purple and White, was used there over several decades to clear the lush forest that New Brunswick is known for. It was a large cocktail, too. Between 1956 and 1984 alone, 1.3 million litres of Agents Orange, Purple and White in liquid form and 2 million pounds of dry Agent White were used to clear more than 181,000 acres.

Agents Orange and Purple contained dioxins, an extremely toxic class of chemicals that were unintentionally produced in their manufacturing process. Some types of dioxin also occur naturally in the environment, though at much lower concentrations. These hormone-disruptors have been associated with rare cancers in humans, respiratory problems, impotence, chloracne, developmental and immune system disorders and severe birth defects, to name a few. Minute quantities, in the parts per trillion, can cause harm.

Agent White, also known as Tordon, contained a different kind of manufacturing impurity–hexachlorobenzene (HCB). Like dioxins, HCB is a persistent, bioaccumulative toxic compound, meaning it accumulates in the environment and degrades very slowly. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists it as a probable human carcinogen, and notes animal studies have shown that even small amounts damage the liver, kidneys, immune system and blood.

Much more is known about the effects of Agent Orange thanks to studies done on the Vietnamese population and the U.S. soldiers who were exposed to it. However, establishing a direct causal link between exposure to a particular chemical and a particular disease remains a difficult, if not impossible, task.

Every two years, The National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine in the U.S. updates its categorization of diseases linked with Agent Orange exposure; this has been used by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in determining pensions. The Americans employ a presumptive policy, whereby, if a soldier who served in Vietnam develops one of those diseases, he qualifies for a pension.

Here in Canada, the government is working on a compensation package for veterans and civilians affected by exposure to herbicides at Gagetown. Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson, the MP for New Brunswick Southwest, has been given that duty. “We have to have a package that deals with it at a human level, understanding that it’s a very complex equation,” he observes in a phone interview. “Some of the pieces have gone missing for 50 years. This is the first government that said, ‘No, we’re not going to pick up the rug and sweep it under for some other government to deal with.'”

Concurrently, a fact-finding project appointed by the Department of National Defence and based in Oromocto is embarking on human health and environmental studies in and around the base. Due to be completed in the summer of 2007, the Base Gagetown and Area Fact-Finders’ Project has been praised by some and received with skepticism by others. Its findings have so far resulted in the restriction of access to three areas of the base–Murphy and Clones bivouacs and an area along Ripon Road. Several other areas have been designated ‘hot spots’ and will be assessed for health risk.

Out of 1,200 soil, sediment and groundwater samples taken from the range and training area, 10 per cent showed high levels of dioxins or hexachlorobenzene. This is based on current, rather than historical, levels. Fact-finding co-ordinator Dennis Furlong, a practising family physician and former New Brunswick health minister, says that backward extrapolation has yet to be done. “The question came up…’if those levels are there now, what would have they been 50 years ago? My answer is ‘I don’t know, but I’m quite sure (they were) higher.'”

The chief of staff at CFB Gagetown, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Kearney, emphasizes that he and base commander Colonel Ryan Jestin are “totally committed to making sure this base is a safe place to work, live, train, play.” They are assisting the fact-finders with everything from access to records–meticulously kept by one employee over several decades–to the clearing of danger areas. “I plan to retire here….so I have a stake in this too.”

But Gagetown veterans like Burke are feeling at a loose end. Time is ticking–and in some cases running out.

Well over 150,000 people worked at Gagetown between 1952 and the present. Most were Canadian soldiers, but there were also international military visitors, including Americans and Brits. It is the job of the fact-finding project to create a database of people who worked on the base. By now, however, many are no longer living in the area and not aware of what’s going on. Much of the media attention has remained within New Brunswick.

“These people were good, strong soldiers,” says Payne, a member of The Royal Canadian Legion’s branch in Oromocto as well as the Black Watch Association. “They did what they were told, but now they’re sick. They’ve been poisoned by their environment.”

What’s more, he adds, Veterans Affairs Canada is placing an unreasonably high burden of proof on those veterans who are applying for pensions. “They have served their country and now, when it comes time for their country to look after them, they’re denied because there’s not the support systems in place to look after them.” Referring to Burke, he says, “Jimmy applied (for a pension) for his lung disorder and other difficulties to the department of Veterans Affairs. (He was) turned down.”

Burke adds, “I have always been a healthy person. This didn’t really affect me until three or four years ago. Since that time I’ve had (two) heart attacks, congestive lung disorder, and I’m starting to get lumps and bumps all over myself. Being the type of person that works all the time…all of a sudden, my whole world went ‘bang.'” He is paying $300 a month for medication.

Payne and his comrades from the Black Watch and the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals have been helping veterans fill in their VAC forms. So, too, has the Legion’s service bureau network, which consists of volunteer and paid service officers at the branch, provincial and national levels. Payne says he has had enormous co-operation from New Brunswick Command service officer Kelly Newstead. Oromocto Branch service officer John Perry notes that the branch has put in some 115 applications.

“The majority of (the Legion’s) clients have come to New Brunswick Command to get their services,” says Dominion Command Service Bureau Director Pierre Allard, adding that the organization has also been writing letters and having discussions with VAC. Allard acknowledges that veterans “have been facing a high level of frustration,” and says the Legion’s service bureau network is suggesting that clients who have been turned down by VAC at first application should wait until the fact-finding reports are tabled before going through the review and appeals process. “We’re kind of caught here. Timeliness is indeed of the essence.”

Out of 1,100 herbicide-related applications received by VAC as of June, only four Gagetown veterans have been granted a pension. One of those was the late Brigadier-General Gordon Sellar, a decorated WW II soldier who commanded the Black Watch at Gagetown as a colonel during the 60s; he developed chronic lymphocytic leukemia nearly three decades later. His wife, Gloria, waged a successful campaign to get her husband his pension, but it took more than a decade to convince VAC of the link between those distinctively labelled barrels of herbicide, her husband’s service and his illness. “I was absolutely determined to find out something about this, because there were so many Black Watch people who were dying and extremely ill,” says the vibrant 79-year-old, who herself recently overcame breast cancer. Fortunately, because of his rank, Sellar could show where her husband was and when. The same is not true for scores of others.

Veterans Affairs granted Gordon Sellar his pension in 2004; he died weeks later. Gloria took her story to the media in May 2005, becoming the catalyst for a torrent of activity. Since then she has become one of the more prominent voices for Gagetown veterans and their widows. Every month, she takes the train from Kingston, Ont., to Oromocto to fulfil her duties, which include being on the independent advisory committee for the fact-finders’ project and helping veterans through the Black Watch Association.

While Sellar acknowledges the perception that her husband received a pension because of his rank, she has done much to help other soldiers. Among them was Gordon’s driver and radio operator, Chester Harding, who was constantly with him in the field at Gagetown; Harding, too, has become seriously ill. Gloria helped Harding fill out his VAC application, but he has so far been unsuccessful. Sellar comments, “Why he didn’t get anything, I don’t know. I think there’s a gag on all of this.”

Two other advocates sprang into action when the Department of National Defence stated in June 2005 that just 2 1/2 barrels of Agent Orange were sprayed at CFB Gagetown in 1966 and 1967. Kenneth Dobbie and Art Connolly, Gagetown ‘army brats,’ formed the Agent Orange Association and used Access to Information to uncover the year-by-year extent of herbicide spraying at the base. They maintain that the government continues to focus on the Americans’ 1966 and 1967 tests, neglecting all the other years the Canadian military was using toxic chemicals between 1956 and 1984. “We had a program in effect 12 years before the Americans came and sprayed Agent Orange,” says Dobbie. “It was an ongoing practice of deliberate defoliation.”

The issue is close to both of their hearts. Each of them lost their fathers (and Connolly other family members) to illness they attribute to living and working on the base during the 60s. Dobbie himself has suffered a variety of ailments, including brain atrophy and Type 2 diabetes, since the summer of 1966 when he worked at Gagetown as a teenager, clearing foliage that had been doused with herbicides.

Dobbie and Connolly posted the telltale DND documents on their popular website, www.agentorangealert.com, and continue to call for a full public inquiry. “It’s not about the money, it’s about government accepting responsibility,” says Connolly.

While the herbicide saga was unfolding under the Martin government, Thompson and his provincial counterpart, Jody Carr, MLA for Oromocto-Gagetown, were among the strongest voices demanding answers and action. As the current Veterans Affairs minister, Thompson has stated he would present his compensation package to cabinet in “the late fall or early next year” and that it would most likely come in the form of an ex gratia payment.

Liberal MP Robert Thibault comments that Thompson “raised expectations pretty high as a critic…that he’d get money out immediately,” but that the Conservatives’ first budget didn’t include any such allocation. He adds that VAC is using a “pretty acid test” in determining veterans’ pension claims.

In Oromocto, Carr responds, “Greg Thompson has always said, myself included, we can’t write blank cheques. What we were successful in doing is having (VAC’s) denial letter adjusted so it would say, ‘You’ve been denied thus far. There’s a process ongoing, and as that process finds more info, your file will be reconsidered.”

Before, says Carr, “The federal government was limiting (its pension coverage) to seven days of Agent Orange spraying. Collectively, everyone had to convince them in Ottawa that it was more than just that. Finally, we’ve been able to do it.”

Thompson acknowledges the burden of proof for veterans applying for pensions is “difficult. If we want to go through the pensionable process, you and I will probably be talking about this another 10 years down the road, because there’s probably not going to be a satisfactory resolution to all of those soldiers.” However, he says, the bar will be lower for the compensation package.

But compensation is not likely to come until late 2007, Thompson confirms, as the government is waiting for the results of the fact-finding project. “Once you’re operating from a basis of fact,” says the minister, “only then can you resolve a problem. Those fact-finding missions are very important.”

The Agent Orange Association doesn’t put much stock in the fact-finding project, which Dobbie calls a public relations exercise. “They don’t have any real power because all they’re going to do is collect facts, and…give (them) to the government. We take great issue with that because we already know the facts.” He is seeking redress in a class-action lawsuit launched in July 2005 by the Merchant Law Group, a national law firm. He is one of the primary representatives for the plaintiffs.

The $800,000-plus fact-finding project got rolling in August 2005. Its original co-ordinator, Vaughan Blaney, took ill and was succeeded by Furlong last November. While the doctor spends only two or three days a week in Oromocto at the project office, Furlong has a team of four staff as well as private contractors to conduct the fact-finding studies.

So far, Furlong has interviewed some 500 to 600 veterans and civilians in the area. He will use that information as well as the environmental and health studies to put together an overarching report to government. “I don’t believe there’s any culpability in this,” Furlong maintains. “What was done was done without the full knowledge of what we know today with chemicals….We live in a chemical environment.” But, he adds, “The government wants accountability.”

The two recently completed tasks of determining the historical use of herbicides at Gagetown, in addition to the preliminary environmental assessment, were “landmark” steps towards the completion of the project, he says. “The Government of Canada can’t be accountable on (speculation). It has to have data and facts to represent the people of Canada’s money properly.”

While Sellar believes Furlong is doing a “wonderful job,” she is anxious for the government to “get on with it.”

Furlong acknowledges the sense of urgency. “As I said to people who say ‘this is taking long’, I said, ‘Well, it goes back 50 years…. Eighteen months (from November 2005) doesn’t seem to be too long to get it right. We’re moving as fast as we can.”

As for criticism from the Agent Orange Association, Furlong calmly responds, “We’re doing our thing, they’re doing their thing. Nothing they do will affect what we do here.”

Kearney, the chief of staff of CFB Gagetown, comments that Furlong has the necessary knack for separating fact from emotion. “(He’s) not there to grandstand. He’s there to take the facts and present them to the minister. In no way is this a public relations exercise at all.”

A few points merit attention as the project enters its final phases. While Thompson has said that people who live, or lived, in the communities around Gagetown would be considered for compensation, they are not a part of Furlong’s mandate. “(My) terms of reference include veterans–I presume that involves the spouses of deceased veterans–the employees of the Government of Canada and the private contractors on the base. That’s my mandate as of now.”

Two residents of Hoyt, separated from CFB Gagetown by the Oromocto River, are watching developments closely. Gloria Paul, a retired nurse who moved to New Brunswick from England in 1977, has written countless letters to government ministers and base staff, concerned about the effects of base operations on the environment. “They won’t tell you anything. You have to come up with it and show them, and then they’ll say, ‘Yeah, that’s right.'”

Her neighbour, Suzanne McCann, has joined Dobbie’s class-action suit. For 40 years she lived in Enniskillen, a community right next to one of the training areas that was turned into a barren landscape by heavy herbicide spraying. Her health has improved since she moved away in 1997. “Out of that little community where I lived, out of eight houses, 25 people have died of cancer.” Her son works on the base and has provided a report to the fact-finders, but she’s not sure what to think of the project, she admits.

As for the environmental assessment conducted by consulting firm Jacques Whitford, the peer review identified some weaknesses. For one thing, there was a lack of information on the analytical procedures used by the laboratories handling the samples. Without this information, wrote the scientists, providing quality assurance and control was difficult, if not impossible.

The scientists indicated that the sampling should have gone beyond the first 10 centimetres of topsoil, and that the soil should have been analyzed for “critical parameters such as total organic content.” Also, there was “a failure to include reference sampling areas outside the range and training area.” This would have given some basis for comparison, and allowed Jacques Whitford to characterize “regional sources of chemicals of concern.”

Thompson points out that there is more environmental testing to come. “I’ve made some suggestions. I believe some of (the testing) will address…proximity to the base. Some of those communities would have been impacted simply because of wind direction and proximity. Not only am I mandated to look at the military people and civilians on the base, but those off the base as well. That’s exactly what we’re doing.”

As Payne’s comrades await resolution of their pension claims, the plain-speaking veteran observes, “They’re not a bunch of people looking to buy a new car. What the concern is here, if we have injuries related to the herbicides, is who is going to look after us?”

  • Tony Venuta

    I was in Gagetown in that time period, I developed irregular sleep habits, and was diagnosed with Central Sleep Apnea. A neurological disorder. I have to use a positive flow breathing machine to get any quality sleep. I never heard of the use of the pesticides until a week before the program ended. It was told to me by a co worker who was awarded a settlement, but has since passed. My confusion was that I thought it was Agent Orange that may have been the cause, but have since learned of Agent White. My doctor says, “It could be the cause, but I can’t say for certain”…….Naturally Veterans Dept. says, “He must say for certain,” Guess I’m another of those, Too bad for you guys…

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