Environment

A DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

Canada once made chemical weapons, but nobody seems to know where they all went

KEN MACQUEEN August 25 2003
Environment

A DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

Canada once made chemical weapons, but nobody seems to know where they all went

KEN MACQUEEN August 25 2003

A DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

Environment

Canada once made chemical weapons, but nobody seems to know where they all went

KEN MACQUEEN

CANADA'S PAST as a chemical weapons producer was hidden so well that even the military isn’t sure where all the remnants of its toxic stockpile are buried, or what risk they represent to the public and the environment. In July, Defence Minister John McCallum announced the first stage of a $10-million scavenger hunt for so-called warfare agents that were lost or improperly disposed of in Canada or its waters.

Step 1 is a search of military archives to create an inventory of domestic warfare agent disposal sites. Subsequent steps will assess recovery or remediation projects. “As science and technology on the environment have increased over the years, we’ve realized in some cases that we have left a legacy behind,” says Chris Hough, project director of the warfare agent disposal program at the Department of National Defence.

That legacy dates to the start of research in 1937. By 1941, wartime Canada was attacking the issue on several fronts: at the Chemical Warfare Laboratories in Ottawa, and, in a joint program with Britain, at a 260,000-sq.-ha experimental station at Suffield, Alta., northwest of Medicine Hat. A biological facility on Grosse-Île in the St. Lawrence River produced deadly anthrax for Britain and the U.S. Much of this stayed a dark secret until 1989, when former journalist John Bryden, now a Hamilton-area Liberal MP, revealed the scope of the program in Deadly Allies: Canada’s Secret War.

Bryden’s book opens with a graphic description of the military loading 10,982 drums—about 2,500 tonnes—of a deadly mustard blister agent onto a war-surplus ship in Halifax in 1946. The ship was towed into the Atlantic and pounded by anti-aircraft guns until it sank in 2,500 m about 300 km from Sable Island, N.S. Bryden’s

book also reveals open-air field trials that sent clouds of poison rolling across the Suffield range, and experiments that exposed about 1,000 Canadian soldiers to mustard gas. Today, Bryden says he’s pleased the defence department is investigating its past actions.

How Canada lost track of such deadly parts of its arsenal is “a logical question to ask,” Hough concedes. “The activities happened 50, 60 years ago,” he says, “and it’s only recently been determined that maybe these activities weren’t as safe as they were thought to be at the time.” There are suspected post-war chemical weapons dumps off both coasts. A1947 picture from the Victoria Daily Times shows 400 tonnes of chemical warfare gas, “much of it still on the secret list,” being unloaded in nearby Esquintait for dumping in the Pacific. Bryden has long wondered if the chemicals seeding the Atlantic seabed contributed to the collapse of cod stocks. The review will try to locate the sites and determine their potential risk before deciding if the expense of deep-water exploration is justified.

The standards for land-based disposal have also changed. In the mid-1970s, 700 tonnes of bulk mustard were neutralized at Suffield using lime and water. Cruder methods were also used, including “explosive de-

molition, weathering and open-pit burning carried out at remote locations,” says a 1995 study on weapons disposal from Defence Research Establishment Suffield. Such activities raised local concerns that “research and development programs might be responsible for certain illnesses or diseases in the district communities,” the study says without further elaboration.

Suffield conducted another round of chemical agent destruction between 1989 and 1991. By then, the remaining cache was considered “an unacceptable risk” that also compromised “Canadian initiatives at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament,” the Suffield study says. The $18-million program involved chemically neutralizing 0.3 tonnes of nerve agents as well as burning in a transportable incinerator 14.5 tonnes of mustard and lewisite blister agents. Some of the secrecy vanished with Canada’s weapons stash. “Our program, postWorld War Two, really scaled back,” says Hough. “There was no need to produce large quantities of material and we’ve had a defensive focus for years.”

Recent terror attacks may have inspired Canada’s new openness about its chemical weapons expertise. That defensive knowledge is critical, says Bryden. “The last thing you want,” he adds, “is some terrorist out there thinking that Canada is totally ignorant in these fields, because that invites trouble.” Iffl