Regulator turns deaf ear to ocean munitions

Outcome unknown if seismic tests rattle mustard canisters

Letter to editor from Myles Kehoe
Cape Breton Post
Saturday, Dec. 6, 2003

Since 1992 I have researching the whereabouts of Canada's Second World War mustard gas munitions: shells, bombs, mines and grenades charged with this deadly blister agent.

My research uncovered the fact that Canada was a world leader in the development, testing and production of chemical weapons from 1939 to 1945. Most artillery shells filled with mustard gas were manufactured by CIL's plant at Cornwall, Ont. These shells were shipped overseas to the front lines immediately upon production.

Thankfully, these awful weapons were never used, in the years following WW II. Canada and the United States disposed of their huge arsenals of chemical and conventional weapons by the most economical means possible: dumping at sea.

Newspaper accounts from early 1946 tell how fishermen from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia protested against the proposed dumping of more than 2,800 tons of mustard gas off Sable Island, fearing it would harm their fishing grounds.

The fisherman were ignored, and the dumping occurred. Disposal of munitions continued until the 1960s off Canada's Atlantic coasts. What was unknown at the time is that mustard gas forms a thick goo in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, remaining active indefinitely if undisturbed.

NATO calls ocean-dumped chemical weapons "ticking time bombs" because the hardened steel artillery shell casings are only now corroding through and beginning to release their deadly cargo into the marine environment.

Other coastal countries - notably Belgium, Denmark, Norway Sweden and Russia - recognize the threat that this leaking mustard gas poses, especially to fishermen and petroleum resource workers.

Funds have been allocated to reputable scientists who are studying the effects of these leaking chemical weapons on the marine environment and developing action plans.

In June 2002, Canada's minister of fisheries and oceans stated that the department "has not conducted any studies on the toxicity or behaviour of mustard gas in water as DFO's labs are not equipped to deal with such highly toxic substances."

In September 2002, evidence was presented to the Canada- Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board's Ad Hoc Working Group that munitions dumped off the Magdalene Islands could have been carried by strong ocean currents to the west coast of Cape Breton. In April, a spokesman from National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa admitted on CBC Radio Canada that the military doesn't know the effects that seismic testing would have on old ocean-based munitions.

Despite these warnings, CNSOPB recently gave permission to Corridor Resources to conduct seismic testing off the west coast of Cape Breton, using shock waves of more than 240 decibels in the search for natural gas.

In 1946, Maritime fishermen protested against munitions dumping, fearing it could harm their fishing grounds. 57 years later, science is proving that their concerns were justified.

Today, fishermen are protesting that seismic testing off the west coast of Cape Breton can cause irreparable harm to their fishing grounds. Science can present little data on the safety of seismic in this rich and relatively shallow coastal environment. Once again, fishermen are being ignored.

The regulatory board is not listening to the fishermen, nor are federal, provincial and municipal leaders. Natural gas, if it is there, promises bigger revenues than the fisheries.

The fishermen have three options: to allow seismic to proceed, to protest against it as the gentlemen that they are and hope the regulators will listen to them rather than to the voices of Big Oil, or to actively protect their fishing grounds in a manner that will prevent seismic testing from proceeding.

I urge the public to join with our fishermen should they call for our support. Their fathers were right in 1948, and science may prove today's fishermen right should seismic testing result in the destruction of fragile larval crab, lobster and larval fish. This is tomorrow's food supply for us all.

Saying "I told you so" gets us nowhere. Saying No is always more effective. This is a word the regulators, elected representatives and industry must learn to obey.

Myles Kehoe lives in
Margaree Forks.