Ottawa is warning about unexploded ammo lurking underfoot
WATCH YOUR STEP
Ottawa is warning about unexploded ammo lurking underfoot
BY MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI • Nobody lives on Bald Head Island. Not now, and certainly not in the 1940s, when the narrow strip of sand was a practice target for Canadian warplanes training high above Lake Ontario. For 14 years, from 1939 to 1953, fighter pilots pelted the isolated beach with thousands of bombs and rockets. During the height of the Second World War, deafening explosions were just part of the natural charm of living in Prince Edward County. “I’m 62, and I have childhood memories of it,” says Randy Saylor, whose family still cottages in the region, two hours east of Toronto. “Even then, we used to boat over to Bald Head on Sundays and pick up shiny bullets and have a swim.”
Decades later, vacationers still venture ashore with coolers and towels and an afternoon to waste. But the Department of National Defence—petrified that someone might step on an old piece of unexploded ammo—is suddenly determined to keep everyone away. So determined, in fact, that federal officials blitzed the island and charged people with trespassing. “The locals went crazy,” Saylor says. Everyone was asking the same question: why now? The risk is no different today than it was 50 years ago.
True. It’s just that DND (and its lawyers) are finally taking the time to measure that risk and alert the public. The work is all part of the newly created Unexploded Explosive Ordnance (UXO) and Legacy Sites program, a multi-year project that will identify, assess and, in some cases, clean up the military’s decades-old messes. And there are lots of them. Bald Head included, the UXO staff has already identified 640 plots of land littered throughout the country with potentially explosive debris, most of it grenades
and mortars scattered across former army firing ranges. Officials have also pinpointed hundreds of additional danger zones lurking in the Atlantic Ocean, where many wartime shipwrecks remain loaded with live munitions. “It is our liability,” says Fran McBride, who manages the Legacy Sites program. “We have an obligation to warn people.”
Hence the new website—www.uxocana.da. forces.gc.ca—which is loaded with photos of rusty shells and torpedoes. A Q&A page explains the issue in the simplest terms. “If I walk or ride my bike over UXO, what will happen?” it asks. The answer: “It is almost impossible to predict. In many cases,
‘WE USED TO PICK THE SHINY BULLETS OFF THE BEACH AND HAVE A SWIM’
you will be lucky and nothing will happen. You might not even know it is there. Or, it might explode.”
The latter happened to Pierre Gentes in June 1982. His family and friends were celebrating Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day on the beach of Lac St. Pierre, in Nicolet, Que. One of the partygoers picked up what appeared to be an old pipe and tossed it on the campfire. It turned out to be an explosive shell, one of thousands fired into the lake from a nearby experimental munitions range. The campfire erupted, killing Gentes and wounding nine others. “Every spring, there is still ammunition that we find on the beach,” says Francois Gentes, who watched his youn-
ger brother die that night, and whose family was later compensated by the military. “They should have done something a long time ago.”
Such is DND’s dilemma. No matter what it does now, nobody will be completely satisfied. Some will complain it’s overkill. Others will say it’s too little, too late. Even if the bureaucrats were armed with unlimited funds (they aren’t; in 2006 the budget was $9 million) they could never dispose of every single hazardous scrap. “The only way we could ever give a 100 per cent guarantee is if we sifted every morsel of soil down to the bedrock,” McBride says. “And that’s just not practical.” So instead, the department plans to rate each site according to how isolated it is, combined with the odds that someone will actually trip over a grenade and trigger an explosion. Lowrisk sites will essentially be left alone, allowing the feds to focus on disarming places like Bald Head Island and Lac St. Pierre. Come springtime, those areas, and dozens of others, will also be surrounded by brand new “DANGER” signs—red, white and duly focusgrouped (the version with “bomb rays” was the resounding choice, according to the consultant’s report. Others possibilities were rejected for being too “fun” and “cartoony”).
When told of the government’s action plan, Terrance Long could only giggle. Warning signs? “A little more thought has to go into this,” says Long, a retired field engineer and former bomb disposal chief for the Canadian Forces. “I would take the issue right out of DND’s hands and develop a whole new department. They are the polluters, so how, in the 21st century, can we still have the polluter dictating what they are going to clean up and what they are not.”
Consider, Long says, the coast ofYarmouth, N.S. For years, he has been trying to warn officials about the sunken U-215 German submarine that rests on the ocean floor. “That sub sits on a 45-degree angle with five vertical launch tubes on it,” he says. “In four of the tubes are three live mines, and in the last tube are two mines.” Fishermen trawl the area nearly every day, and some have already snagged their nets on the wreck. “It’s just a matter of time before somebody hooks the vertical launch tubes, pulls open the hatch and catches a mine.” Pity the crew that hauls that net aboard. M
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.