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Mustard Gas and Seismic Blasts

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Issue: 12 Section: Environment Geography: Atlantic Topics: water, arms industry

December 22, 2003

Mustard Gas and Seismic Blasts

The threat of chemical dumps in Atlantic waters

by Pierre Loiselle

underwater-barrels.jpg
Corroded barrels of mustard gas like those scattered along the Atlantic coast.
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 1989 book "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 terrible."

Recently, some efforts have been made to address the problem. The military has created the Warfare Agent Disposal Project "to identify 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 "there 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. "Seismic guns 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 'don'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.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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