The threat of chemical dumps in Atlantic waters
The coastal waters of Atlantic Canada have been polluted with a legacy of chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry. The primary culprits include the Canadian, American and British militaries, which have obsessed over our safety from alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, while the communities and eco-systems of the Atlantic region have been under attack from the very same weapons of mass destruction since the 1940's. Now, with corporations being given permission to do seismic testing in Atlantic waters, the impact of these dumpsites may be compounded.
Canada has played an integral role in the development and production
of biological and chemical weapons.
Almost every biological agent
that you hear talked about in today's news as a threat from
terrorists and that kind of thing, was actually first developed (and)
thought of here in Canada, says John Bryden, former journalist and
editor at the Toronto Star who is currently an MP from Ontario. His
Deadly Allies exposed Canada's pioneering role in
the development of chemical and biological weapons. Bryden also
chronicled the delivery of 2800 tons of mustard gas from Stormont
Chemicals in Cornwall, Ontario to where it was dumped off the Coast of
Sable Island in 1946.
After the Second World War, Canada and Britain declared much of their
chemical and biological stockpiles as surplus and dumped them both
inland and in the ocean. There is an estimated one billion pounds of
mustard gas and related chemical weapons munitions at the bottom of
the world's oceans, but more insidiously, there is a large number
of dumpsites that were never officially recorded. According to Cape
Breton resident Myles Kehoe, who formed Myles and Associates to
actively bring attention to the perils of oil and gas exploration over
military dumpsites, even the Department of National Defence is unsure
as to what lies on the ocean floor.
They don't have a clue
where the stuff is, or even what's down there, it's
Recently, some efforts have been made to address the problem. The
military has created the Warfare Agent Disposal Project
and assess water and land-based sites where chemical and/or biological
warfare agents may still exist as a result of past defence
activities. Last year, an engineering firm contracted by the
Department of National Defence, identified 1,200 munitions disposal
sites along the Atlantic coast including 70 locations with unexploded
weaponry and the possibility of mustard gas.
The Bras d'Or Lake region on Cape Breton Island was also used as a dumping ground for mustard gas, but to what extent is unknown. There are two locations in the lake itself that are known to have been disposal sites for mustard gas, Johnston and Kempt Head. These sites are close to two Mi'kmaq communities that have always depended on the fish in that area for their survival.
Mustard gas and the by-products resulting from its breakdown are carcinogenic and teratogenic and many people are concerned about the impact of this toxic waste on both human health and marine eco-systems. Aboriginal communities along the Bras D'or Lakes, and on Cape Breton Island in general, have the highest cancer rates and the lowest life expectancy in the country.
Senior DFO scientists have been baffled by the increasing death rates
among young cod dying off the coast of Nova Scotia, reporting to the
Chronicle Herald in December 2000 that:
it's a mystery; a
unique phenomenon that I don't think has been observed anywhere
else in the North Atlantic. John Bryden suspects that
might be a connection between it [the mustard gas] and the mysterious
disappearance of the cod stocks [considering] the huge amount of
munitions now known to have been disposed of and the number of sites
involved. The Minister of Fisheries reported in June 2002 that the
DFO has not conducted any studies on the toxicity or behavior of
mustard gas in water as DFO's labs are not equipped to deal with
such highly toxic substances.
This month, fishers and environmentalists have raised grave concerns
about the decision to allow oil companies to employ seismic tests off
the Coast of Cape Breton in their search for oil.
generate sound waves strong enough to penetrate the earth's
surface two to five km down and back again—these are powerful
blasts. There is relatively little known information about the impact
of a sound wave passing through barrels of chemicals that have been
lying on the ocean floor for 50 years, explains Mark Butler from
the Ecology Action Center.
When there is uncertainty or lack of
knowledge, the precautionary principle tells us ”Ędon‘t do
it’. It would be wise for oil companies to pay heed to that.
The Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NSOPB) regulates
petroleum resource exploration permits. They do not believe that
seismic blasting poses a threat to human or marine health, nor have
they explored the impact of seismic testing on chemical and biological
contaminants in munitions dumps. They have granted licenses for
Corridor Resources and Hunt Oil to engage in oil and natural gas
exploration. The Department of National Defence has informed the
C-NSOPB of the locations of known dumpsites with the intent that these
areas be avoided. According to Hunt Oil's Environmental Impact
Assessment of June 2003, the Sydney Bight is home to 16,000 tons of
mustard, 7,500 tons of arsenic containing the blistering agent
lewisite, and a few barge loads of nerve gas. Nevertheless, the
company plans to continue exploratory activities. Hunt Oil has also
announced its intentions of conducting seismic blasting over a known
dumpsite north of the Magdellan Islands.
That's pretty hard to
believe that they're allowed to do that and nobody is stopping
them, says Kehoe.