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The Department of National Defence is fighting a monumental battle to clean up past messes from military training. Data on old munitions buried across Canada reveal huge costs for the federal government that are being dramatically understated on DND’s books

Brian Lanteigne uses a metal detector to search for unexploded explosive ordnance, or UXO, on a former military range in New Brunswick.Stephen MacGillivray/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail


Light snow fell as three men, explosives experts hired by the Department of National Defence, trudged through a forest in northeastern New Brunswick this past fall. With winter fast approaching, this would be their final job of the season.

One of the men, Brian Lanteigne, sunk a metal post into the ground near a river’s shore. On top was a yellow, diamond-shaped sign – a warning to unsuspecting visitors that this is no ordinary forest.

A few decades ago, this hillside was what the military calls an “impact area.” Year after year, soldiers stationed across the river pummelled it with artillery. Nearby land was also peppered with mortars and blasted with aerial bombs.

Live-fire is an essential part of military training, but it has left behind a troubled legacy.

A quarter-century after the shooting stopped at New Brunswick’s Tracadie Range, the battle to clean up the land persists.

The problem with munitions is that not all of them perform as intended. Many – as much as 5 per cent, by some estimates – turn out to be duds. They hit the ground but don’t explode.

Some remain on the surface and others burrow deep into the earth.

Reliable data are hard to come by, but Tracadie is believed to be littered with large numbers of unexploded explosive ordnance, or UXO in military speak.

The yellow warning signs get right to the point: No digging. No campfires. If you see anything, leave the area immediately. Call 911.

“They are still very dangerous,” says Sean Davies, a project manager who works with Mr. Lanteigne at Notra Inc., a firm specializing in detection and removal of explosives.

On the other side of the country from Tracadie, on the territory of the Okanagan Indian Band in B.C., this ordnance was collected in 2015.Handout

Across Canada, there are hundreds of sites such as Tracadie. Even though catastrophe doesn’t strike often – the last known serious injury from UXO was in 2007 at a farm in Manitoba – a huge bill is now coming due for DND.

This year, after struggling for decades to grasp the true extent of the problem, DND arrived at a more definitive list of UXO sites it may be required to clean up. There are 521, stretching from coast to coast.

Some are near suburbs that sprung up as cities expanded; others are in remote areas. Some lie kilometres beneath the ocean’s surface; others lurk beneath farmers’ fields. Some date as far back as the First World War.

The department never had permission to contaminate these sites with UXO. Now a growing number of municipalities, First Nations bands and private landowners are pressing Ottawa to restore these lands to bomb-free condition – demands DND cannot simply ignore.

In public accounts documents, Ottawa estimates its financial liability for clearing these sites at $115-million. But that amount is almost certainly vastly understated, clouded by generous assumptions and charitable accounting policies that obscure the true extent of the obligation.

In reality, the number is much, much higher, meaning the real bombshells may be the ones buried in footnotes of the federal government’s financial statements.


UXO sites across Canada

DND estimates 521 UXO sites across Canada may require clearance. A handful have proved particularly daunting and expensive–or in some instances, even fatal

= UXO site

Yukon

NWT

Nunavut

B.C.

Alta.

N.L.

Que.

Sask.

Man.

Ont.

PEI

6

2

N.B.

N.S.

3

4

7

5

1

TRACADIE, N.B.

Though heavily wooded today, several areas of the former Tracadie Range endured decades of live-fire training

AREAS BY RISK LEVEL

Medium

High

Low

= Live-fire impact areas

160

11

11

Aerial bombing range

0

5

KM

VERNON, B.C.

Canada's deadliest UXO area includes two former ranges, and claimed nine lives between 1944 and 1973

2

TSUU T’INA NATION, ALTA.

The First Nation sued in 1982 to have 11,800 UXO-contaminated acres restored to prairie land. DND spent two decades and tens of millions of dollars decommissioning CFB Calgary

3

RIVERS, MAN

Closed in 1972, this former Air Force training station became the site of Canada's latest-recorded UXO injury in 2007 when a farmworker was severely burned

4

PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY, ONT.

Contains several UXO sites including Wellers Bay National Wildlife Area, a former bombing range

5

LAC SAINT-PIERRE, QUE.

Canada's most explosive lake conceals thousands of UXO from decades of munitions testing

6

OFFSHORE MUSTARD

GAS DISPOSAL SITE

Contains thousands of drums of mustard gas dumped in 1946 at a depth of 2,200 metres

7

murat yükselir/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: department of national defenCe

UXO sites across Canada

DND estimates 521 UXO sites across Canada may require clearance. A handful have proved particularly daunting and expensive–or in some instances, even fatal

= UXO site

Yukon

NWT

Nunavut

B.C.

Alta.

N.L.

Sask.

Man.

Que.

Ont.

PEI

6

2

N.B.

3

N.S.

4

7

5

1

TRACADIE, N.B.

Though heavily wooded today, several areas of the former Tracadie Range endured decades of live-fire training

AREAS BY RISK LEVEL

Medium

High

Low

= Live-fire impact areas

160

11

11

Aerial bombing range

0

5

KM

VERNON, B.C.

Canada's deadliest UXO area includes two former ranges, and claimed nine lives between 1944 and 1973

2

TSUU T’INA NATION, ALTA.

The First Nation sued in 1982 to have 11,800 UXO-contaminated acres restored to prairie land. DND spent two decades and tens of millions of dollars decommissioning CFB Calgary

3

RIVERS, MAN

Closed in 1972, this former Air Force training station became the site of Canada's latest-recorded UXO injury in 2007 when a farmworker was severely burned

4

PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY, ONT.

Contains several UXO sites including Wellers Bay National Wildlife Area, a former bombing range

5

LAC SAINT-PIERRE, QUE.

Canada's most explosive lake conceals thousands of UXO from decades of munitions testing

6

OFFSHORE MUSTARD GAS DISPOSAL SITE

Contains thousands of drums of mustard gas dumped in 1946 at a depth of 2,200 metres

7

murat yükselir/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: department of national defenCe

UXO sites across Canada

1

TRACADIE, N.B.

DND estimates 521 UXO sites across Canada may require clearance. A handful have proved particularly daunting and expensive–or in some instances, even fatal

Though heavily wooded today, several areas of the former Tracadie Range endured decades of live-fire training

AREAS BY RISK LEVEL

Medium

High

Low

= UXO site

= Live-fire impact areas

160

Yukon

NWT

11

Nunavut

0

5

Aerial bombing range

KM

B.C.

Alta.

N.L.

Sask.

Man.

Que.

Ont.

PEI

2

N.B.

N.S.

3

4

7

6

5

VERNON, B.C.

Canada's deadliest UXO area includes two former ranges, and claimed nine lives between 1944 and 1973

RIVERS, MAN

Closed in 1972, this former Air Force training station became the site of Canada's latest-recorded UXO injury in 2007 when a farmworker was severely burned

TSUU T’INA NATION, ALTA.

The First Nation sued in 1982 to have 11,800 UXO-contaminated acres restored to prairie land. DND spent two decades and tens of millions of dollars decommissioning CFB Calgary

2

3

4

PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY, ONT.

Contains several UXO sites including Wellers Bay National Wildlife Area, a former bombing range

LAC SAINT-PIERRE, QUE.

Canada's most explosive lake conceals thousands of UXO from decades of munitions testing

OFFSHORE MUSTARD GAS DISPOSAL SITE

Contains thousands of drums of mustard gas dumped in 1946 at a depth of 2,200 metres

5

6

7

murat yükselir/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: department of national defenCe


INITIAL OPTIMISM

At 18,088 hectares, the vast Tracadie Range is a prime example of the problem DND faces over its legal responsibility for UXO. In 1997, soon after the closing of nearby Canadian Forces Base Chatham, the department issued an upbeat press release announcing plans to return the land to the province of New Brunswick free of explosives.

Department officials reckoned only a quarter of the range was contaminated with UXO. The work would take four years and would cost $20-million. It was one of the most ambitious clearance operations ever in Canada, and DND was confident victory would be swift. “When Tracadie was in full swing, we employed almost every available UXO tech in the country,” recalled Matthew Braid, a former senior member of DND’s UXO Program, who retired in 2009. “That included retired folks.”

But the initial optimism at Tracadie would be short-lived.

DND approaches UXO clearance the same way it approaches almost everything else: as a military operation.

Copies of DND’s Range Clearance Handbooks, which The Globe and Mail obtained through the federal Access to Information Act, outline the methodology behind the job. Sections of them read like combat briefings. “The commander of the team, using normal battle procedure, will plan and execute his mission,” one handbook instructs. “During the operation he monitors the progress, re-evaluates the situation and reorganizes his forces to meet the changing circumstances. He must constantly monitor the morale and well-being of his men.”

DND’s manuals warn sweepers about preconceived notions of how munitions look. “Most ammunition found on the range will be in a deteriorated state. It will be discoloured, distorted, rusty, broken or otherwise very unlike what you have seen coming out of its shipping container. It will blend in with the ground,” a handbook says.

UXO could be buried just beneath the surface, or more than a meter deep.Stephen MacGillivray/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Anything identified by metal detection gear is called an “anomaly” and must be carefully excavated by hand. Dangerous UXO are typically detonated onsite. Often, though, crews discover bottle caps, tin cans and shrapnel from spent shells.

“This task can be boring and tiresome,” the handbook cautions. “Carelessness may set in within two hours of the start of the operation. Beware of this attitude and at all costs stay alert. It is carelessness that kills.”

The only way crews can ensure complete UXO clearance is to remove every cubic centimetre of soil, right down to the bedrock. But that’s so expensive, it’s almost never contemplated.

Using any other method, however, “there’s always some residual risks,” said Debbie Nichols, a project manager with the UXO Program. “Especially for sites like Tracadie where live firing occurred.”

And sometimes there are the proverbial goose chases. If historical research leads technicians to hunt the wrong munitions, in the wrong areas, an entire season of work can be wasted.

At Tracadie, things went very wrong from the beginning.

Clearance operations were supposed to wrap up in 2001. Yet during the final season, crews found hundreds of anomalies, including shrapnel and unexploded shells in an area known as ARA-6. That was odd: ARA-6 had supposedly been cleared to a depth of 45 cm just a few years earlier.

This prompted the province to conduct an audit on DND’s work.

In early 2004, New Brunswick’s then-minister of natural resources, Keith Ashfield, sent a tersely worded letter to the federal defence minister of the day, David Pratt.

An estimated 15,000 anomalies had been found at Tracadie on land that was previously declared clear. Several of the roads weren’t safe for trucks and heavy equipment.

“The results of the audit raise questions relating to the UXO clearance work,” Mr. Ashfield wrote. He reminded DND that under the land-use agreement, DND was legally responsible “for any further clearance work.” Ottawa was learning that the province, not DND, had the final word on when the cleanup was over.

That was 15 years ago. Asked recently to forecast when Tracadie Range might at long last be satisfactorily cleared of UXO, a spokeswoman for the New Brunswick government could not offer a projection.


Anatomy of a UXO Clearance operation

Following removal of any vegetation that may impede surveyors, suspected UXO sites are systematically mapped using magnetometers or electromagnetic induction equipment. Detected "anomalies" can be reacquired using handheld units, excavated and identified; UXO are typically destroyed on site

 

Cart-mounted sensor array

Sites are divided into lanes to ensure no spots are missed

DETECTING UXO WITH AN EM61

HANDHELD METAL DETECTOR

1

1

The EM61’s transmitter coil generates an electromagnetic field that travels through the ground

The EM61’s transmitter coil generates an electromagnetic field that travels through the ground

2

2

The electromagnetic field induces a small electric current in metal munition, which produces its own electromagnetic field

The electromagnetic field induces a small electric current in metal munition, which produces its own electromagnetic field

3

3

The EM61’s receiver coil detects the munition’s electromagnetic field and displays its strength in millivolts on the handheld device. Signal strength influenced by munition’s size, depth in soil and other factors

The EM61’s receiver coil detects the munition’s electromagnetic field and displays its strength in millivolts on the handheld device. Signal strength influenced by munition’s size, depth in soil and other factors

1

3

2

murat yükselir / THE GLOBE AND MAIl, sources:

geonics limited; ameC; Interstate Technology

& Regulatory Council

Anatomy of a UXO clearance operation

Following removal of any vegetation that may impede surveyors, suspected UXO sites are systematically mapped using magnetometers or electromagnetic induction equipment. Detected "anomalies" can be reacquired using handheld units, excavated and

identified; UXO are typically destroyed on site

 

Cart-mounted sensor array

Sites are divided into lanes to ensure no spots are missed

DETECTING UXO WITH AN EM61 HANDHELD

METAL DETECTOR

1

The EM61’s transmitter coil generates an electromagnetic field that travels through the ground

2

The electromagnetic field induces a small electric current in metal munition, which produces its own electromagnetic field

3

The EM61’s receiver coil detects the munition’s electromagnetic field and displays its strength in millivolts on the handheld device. Signal strength influenced by munition’s size, depth in soil and other factors

1

3

2

murat yükselir / THE GLOBE AND MAIl, sources:

geonics limited; ameC; Interstate Technology

& Regulatory Council

Anatomy of a UXO clearance operation

Following removal of any vegetation that may impede surveyors, suspected UXO sites are systematically mapped using magnetometers or electromagnetic induction equipment. Detected "anomalies" can be reacquired using handheld units, excavated and

identified; UXO are typically destroyed on site

 

Cart-mounted sensor array

Sites are divided into lanes to ensure no spots are missed

DETECTING UXO WITH AN EM61 HANDHELD METAL DETECTOR

The EM61’s transmitter coil generates an electromagnetic field that travels through the ground

1

The electromagnetic field induces a small electric current in metal munition, which produces its own electromagnetic field

2

3

The EM61’s receiver coil detects the munition’s electromagnetic field and displays its strength in millivolts on the handheld device. Signal strength influenced by munition’s size, depth in soil and other factors

3

1

2

murat yükselir / THE GLOBE AND MAIl, sources:

geonics limited; ameC; Interstate Technology & Regulatory Council


THE MATH PROBLEM

Decommissioning old training grounds has become a serious dilemma for the military.

By one federal estimate, DND’s combined land holdings are three times larger than Prince Edward Island. Inevitably, some facilities outlive their usefulness and must be retired.

In 1997, for example, DND closed CFB Calgary and agreed to return nearly 4,800 hectares of land to Tsuu T’ina Nation. In 2000, an artillery range that operated for 50 years at Lac Saint-Pierre in Quebec – and rained an estimated half a million projectiles into its shallow waters – was shut down. And in the mid 2000s, Ottawa began preparations to return Camp Ipperwash in Ontario to the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation.

When DND vacates land, the owners often move back in. At Tracadie, the province planned forestry, some wild blueberry picking and ski and snowboard trails. In Alberta, the provincial government, in conjunction with Tsuu T’ina, wanted to construct a ring road to ease Calgary traffic. And at Lac Saint-Pierre, the city of Nicolet wanted to dredge channels for recreational boaters.

Elsewhere, First Nations bands pursued new housing developments and golf courses. Private companies sought to build wind farms.

These diverse plans all shared something in common: a fundamental incompatibility with high explosives.

And that’s where things got tricky. DND typically hadn’t owned the land in the first place – it was either leased or commandeered from provinces, First Nations or private owners, sometimes by invoking the War Measures Act.

Whatever the case, DND never got permission to litter the land with UXO, which left the department legally exposed in the aftermath.

As early as 1982, the Tsuu T’ina Nation sued in federal court to compel DND to restore nearly 12,000 acres of UXO-littered territory to prairie grasslands. Shortly after decommissioning the experimental range on Lac Saint-Pierre, DND lawyers warned internally that the department never had rights to the lakebed. It couldn’t simply walk away.

As tensions grew, DND established its UXO Program in 2005 to centralize its response to these far-flung sites. But it was a tiny team facing a massive job.

In recent years, the Ottawa-based unit’s annual funding has hovered around $13-million. Its resources include six UXO experts, plus another nine engineers who manage the projects, supported by external contractors.

An internal assessment released in 2014 found that this small team had “established a credible and effective process” for managing UXO sites. However, it was responsible for so many of them that, at the current pace of work, it would need another two decades just to finish assessing and prioritizing each site.

DND was playing a game of triage and making mistakes, according to the report.

“There appears to be no clearly defined process in place to determine the order in which to mitigate sites that have been assessed with risks,” the report said.

“At the current assessment rate of 40 sites per year, the remaining un-assessed sites will not have been examined until 2032.”

In 2017, deputy defence minister John Forster promised to redouble efforts. “We have a lot of legacy sites where we have not been good stewards in cleaning up the ordnance,” he told the Standing Committee on National Defence.

At first blush, the task seems manageable enough. Ottawa’s most recent financial statements report the $115-million liability for clearing UXO sites – a number that’s been declining steadily since 2016. Simple arithmetic might suggest the national cleanup is nearing completion.

But that is almost certainly an illusion.

The basis for the federal estimate isn’t clear. The Globe and Mail requested supporting documents under the Access to Information Act in early October, but the Treasury Board Secretariat said it needed seven months to produce them.

The first reason to doubt the $115-million figure arises from footnotes buried in the public accounts. Under its own accounting guidelines, the government records a UXO liability only when there’s “an appropriate basis for measurement and a reasonable estimate can be made.” But estimates simply aren’t available for the vast majority of sites, so they are excluded from the liability calculation and, ultimately, kept off the books.

As for the small number of sites for which detailed estimates exist, Tracadie isn’t the first where DND has badly misjudged the cost. After spending $66-million to clear the site near Calgary, DND thought it had finished the work 15 years ago. The cleanup continues today.

“The fundamental challenge is that UXO sites cannot be cleared of all UXO,” Mr. Braid said. “The consequence of that limitation is that DND will always liable for the UXO that exist on lands DND once used for training.”

The government’s estimate of how many sites it must eventually clean up is also disputed. Around the time the UXO Program was established, DND’s list of suspected UXO sites totalled 1,400. The department said today’s much lower estimate – 521 – reflects the elimination of locations that were double-counted, or where additional research revealed no ordnance had been dumped or fired. Of those, DND predicts clearance will likely be necessary at just 31 sites.

Terry Long is a long-retired UXO technician who established a non-governmental organization, International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions, in 2004. He says DND struck hundreds of sites from its list not because they’re safe, but to protect its budget. “They are too quick to remove sites or to reclassify the land use,” he said, “but the risks remain.” Mr. Long has long urged DND to recognize UXO hazards from historical torpedo, bombing and gunnery training in Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lake, but says DND continues to play down the risk. “This is a typical approach by DND,” he said. “The complainer has to keep proving to DND that the bombs are there.”

And then there’s Lac Saint-Pierre, a site that threatens to blow all of DND’s financial assumptions to smithereens.


A buoy warns boaters on Lac Saint-Pierre about underwater UXO, which have been known to wash ashore.Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi/ The Globe and Mail


CANADA’S MOST EXPLOSIVE LAKE

On a summer evening in 1982, Pierre Gentes headed down to the beach near Nicolet, Que., to celebrate St. Jean Baptiste Day with friends. They gathered around a bonfire on the picturesque shores of Lac Saint-Pierre.

In the darkness, one of the revellers picked up what he thought was a piece of driftwood and tossed it on the flames. The man hadn’t noticed that the cylindrical object, roughly the size, shape and weight of a small log, was in fact the rusted-out body of a live shell containing two kilograms of explosives. The blast killed Mr. Gentes and seriously injured nine others.

The shell was one of many that had washed ashore. In 2001, Louis-Marc Bergeron picked up one he found near a lakeside highway and, unaware, took it home as a keepsake. The police bomb squad was later called to disarm the souvenir after it sparked panic in a nearby town.

With swaying grass and tree-lined shores, Lac Saint-Pierre isn’t just a UNESCO recognized wetland that is home to North America’s largest heron population. It’s also Canada’s most explosive lake. For almost 50 years, up until 2000, the Canadian military’s test range fired shells as large as 155 mm in diameter, roughly the size of large fire extinguisher, into the lake. Many of them never exploded. Nearly 22,000 so-called geophysical anomalies have been counted in the water. Some of them are just pieces of metal – tin cans and the like. But about 14,000 of them are projectiles, and more than 2,700 are believed to be UXO.

“It’s a lot,” said Geneviève Dubois, the slightly exasperated mayor of Nicolet.

Projectiles retrieved from Lac Saint-Pierre.Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

When the artillery range opened in the 1950s, not much thought was given to the future of the lake. But that’s changed. For years, the town has wanted to develop the scenic spot into a tourist draw. The push began when Ms. Dubois’s father was mayor almost 20 years ago. He’s since died. Now it’s her struggle.

“Right now, the biggest issue is safety, that’s our main concern,” she said. “If this issue is not settled, I think it will be difficult to think about doing any tourism development or recreational development.”

Compounding matters, DND believes currents and ice have moved munitions around the lake. For years, department employees conducted a sweep of the lake’s shoreline every spring and found hundreds of projectiles, at an annual cost of $400,000. Even worse, internal reports suggest UXO may have migrated as far as Sainte-Croix – nearly 100 km down the St. Lawrence from Nicolet.

Obscured by water, submerged UXO are vastly more difficult and costly to locate and clear than those on land. Shortly before Mr. Braid retired from DND in 2009, he met with employees from a UXO contractor, Group S.M., which the department hired to draw up a plan for clearing the lake. They had some alarming news: That effort could cost as much as half a billion dollars.

“I said, ‘Well, $500-million is not going to fly,’ ” Mr. Braid said.

It didn’t.

For a few years afterward, until 2014, footnotes in federal financial statements noted that in addition to the reported UXO liability, there were “estimated further clearance costs” of between $180-million and $524-million for Lac Saint-Pierre. Documents obtained under the Access to Information Act show the government then recalculated its liability for Lac Saint-Pierre at a much lower $45.6-million, which it expects to discharge by 2027. That looks a lot better on the government’s books than $500-million. But Ms. Dubois and others are skeptical. “We’ll certainly still be talking about this in another 15 or 20 years,” she said. “It’s disappointing.”


In 1946, this landing craft was loaded with surplus drums of mustard gas and sailed off the coast of Nova Scotia to be sunk.J.W. Merrimen/Handout


HOW WE GOT HERE

In hindsight, Canada’s UXO headache arose in much the same way other colossal environmental problems do: through decades of short-sighted planning, and through dubious behaviour once regarded as perfectly acceptable.

The UXO Program’s early years resembled a massive research project. Staff plumbed military archives, visited public libraries and collected old photographs and maps, high-resolution radar data, cargo manifests and newspaper clippings. They also interviewed retired government officials, veterans and locals – anyone who might offer hints as to where munitions were hidden. In the process, they uncovered numerous tales of wartime mishaps, bad decisions or pure folly.

In 1945, after the end of hostilities in Europe, warships offloaded huge volumes of unused munitions at a naval magazine at Bedford, N.S. But a fire that summer led to a series of massive explosions. Untold numbers of ordnance, ranging from 20 mm to 8-inch shells, were scattered for several kilometres into the land and water, many of them undetonated by the blast. Despite numerous UXO clearances since then, Bedford Magazine remains Atlantic Canada’s most daunting UXO site.

Other sites resulted from battle victories.

On Oct. 30, 1942, a Royal Canadian Air Force bomber sank a German U-boat east of Newfoundland. The submarine’s entire 48-member crew was lost, along with its torpedoes and mines. U-658 joined many other sunken vessels in the UXO team’s inventory of sites.

A barge loaded with surplus mustard gas is sunk in 1946.Handout

And then there’s folly – or just poor decision making.

As late as the 1970s, Canada and many other countries simply dumped surplus munitions offshore. On Feb. 19, 1946, HMCS Middlesex sank a barge south of Sable Island that carried thousands of drums of mustard gas. The barge descended more than two km to the ocean floor – out of sight and out of mind. At least until oil and gas development began to encroach on the area several decades later.

In some cases, DND’s UXO clearance efforts in the past have actually made matters worse.

While cleaning up the Bedford explosion site, the navy considered selling the “many tons of old brass” munitions they salvaged. But metals prices weren’t high enough. So they loaded the explosives onto a barge and dumped them at Emerald Basin, 40 nautical miles southeast of Halifax.

Emerald Basin is now among the riskiest UXO sites on Canada’s East Coast, surpassed only by Bedford Magazine site itself.


Samples of UXO recovered at Canadian sites: a rocket warhead, mortar and two practice bombs.Department of National Defence


DEATHS, INJURIES, AND STATISTICS

The last known serious UXO injury occurred in the spring of 2007, when a 16-year-old driving a tractor through corn fields near Rivers, Man., ran over something that immediately caught fire. When he stepped down to investigate, a softball sized item on the ground “exploded in his face,” according to an internal DND report on the accident. Severely burned, the boy was airlifted to hospital in Winnipeg and placed in a medically induced coma to cope with the pain. When he was finally released several weeks later, he was permanently disfigured.

The corn field was on land once occupied by CFB Rivers, where pilots trained during the Second World War. The base closed in 1971 and the site eventually became a hog farm in 1988. Like many UXO sites, the explosives lay hidden until a new use for the land emerged.

Immediately after the explosion, DND concluded there was “cause for concern for future incidents,” according to internal documents, and set about to clean up four hectares of land suspected of harbouring buried munitions, including white phosphorous used to detonate napalm firebombs.

DND also devised a communications plan to “emphasize the residual risk to the community.”

“Care must be taken not to use a fear-mongering approach by overstating the danger, but at the same time, emphasis on due diligence for safety,” the documents said.

According to official records, Canada has not seen another accident or death since then.

The Globe obtained historical statistics on UXO-related injuries and fatalities from DND. There have been 17 deaths from UXO in Canada since the 1920s, and 28 serious injuries. The files range from officially documented cases, such as the death at Lac Saint-Pierre, to anecdotal evidence passed on from First Nations bands. In one such case, an elder at Eskasoni First Nation near Bras d’Or Lake in Nova Scotia told DND that a member of the band lost part of his hand when a five-kg bomb exploded after washing up on the beach.

UXO deaths and injuries

By decade

Death

Injury

1920s

1930s

1940s

1950s

1960s

1970s

1980s

1990s

2000s

murat yükselir/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

department of national defenCe

UXO deaths and injuries

By decade

Death

Injury

1920s

1930s

1940s

1950s

1960s

1970s

1980s

1990s

2000s

murat yükselir/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

department of national defenCe

UXO deaths and injuries

By decade

Death

Injury

1920s

1930s

1940s

1950s

1960s

1970s

1980s

1990s

2000s

murat yükselir/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: department of national defenCe

The deadliest place in Canada for UXO is the area around Vernon, B.C., where nine deaths and seven injuries have been recorded since 1944. The worst came in 1948, when a 13-year-old boy and two 18-year-olds were killed on the former Camp Vernon military grounds after encountering UXO.

However, not all accidents happen at the site where UXO washes up or is unearthed. In 1997, an employee at Alpha Metals in Lethbridge, Alta., was killed when a shell mixed in with scrap metal that had come to the plant for processing exploded. A worker at another Lethbridge scrap-metal company died almost the same way 14 years earlier.

Statistically speaking, however, deaths and injuries from UXO are infrequent. As a result, incidents tend to fly under the radar, seldom acquiring notoriety outside communities in which they occur.

But "as the population base sprawls outwards from our cities, pressure will build to allow residential property development on former military properties,” retired Canadian Forces major Jeff Lewis wrote in a 2010 analysis.

“The question may well be asked: How dangerous or environmentally significant is a 105 mm round that is buried 15 feet underground? … Arguably there is no rigorous reply to this question – it is simply too complex to make generalizations.”

The biggest risk for DND is likely the financial one. Its true UXO liability could be crippling to its finances. In the United States, the military has had to spend huge amounts to clean up sites in Hawaii, Florida and elsewhere – hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases – or face protracted legal battles it would probably lose.

“Could something similar to this ever happen in Canada? If it did, how would the Canadian Forces pay for it? How would such a cost impact our operational obligations?” Mr. Lewis wrote. “The short answer is that nobody really knows.”


UXO clearance is a labour-intensive, time-consuming process.Stephen MacGillivray/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail


THE BOMB SCRUB

DND’s Range Clearance Manual estimates that it takes 1.5 days of work for one technician to clear a single acre of UXO land if munitions are on the surface, and eight days of work an acre if they are buried or hidden. But there is hope that technology may change that.

Kevin Kingdon, a research geophysicist at Vancouver-based Black Tusk Inc., is part of that effort. The company is developing methods that not only pinpoint metallic objects underground, but can distinguish UXO from items such as tin cans or shrapnel.

The ability to identify what a metal object actually is, rather than simply locating it, is a Holy Grail of sorts for UXO detection. The goal is to eliminate unnecessary digging, which adds time, manpower and cost to any UXO cleanup.

Black Tusk received much of its research funding from the U.S. military. As a result, the company now does most of its work south of the border at some of the roughly 5,000 UXO sites scattered across the country. Over all, the U.S. has been much more aggressive than DND at funding new technology.

“They [the U.S. military] realized probably more than 10 years ago now that the existing technologies were going to be just impossible to do this cleanup in any reasonable time, with any reasonable amount of money,” Mr. Kingdon said. “So they started investing.”

“I think in Canada there is a sense of, perhaps, ‘Let’s wait and see how this technology plays out,’ ” he added. “But I do think that it’s probably inevitable that it’ll be coming to Canada as well.”

Still, these newfangled methods are no panacea. The smaller the munitions, or the more scattered and concentrated the debris, the more difficult it can be to separate UXO from shrapnel or trash. “There are limitations to it,” he said.

Other companies have tested ground-penetrating radar to find UXO, though that technology cannot distinguish metal from rock and other materials. Meanwhile, Sean Davies at Notra said his company is experimenting with drone-mounted sensors.

But there’s nothing on the horizon that promises to ease DND’s burden – or its huge liability – any time soon.


A sign at the Goose Lake Range, on Okanagan Indian Band territory, warns of the presence of UXO.Jeff Bassett/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail


AN UNSHAKABLE LIABILITY

DND’s unexploded ordnance headache has grown so large, it’s now visible from space.

Satellite images of the Tracadie Range show dozens of clearings carved into the forest that are shaped like the letter E. These were cut by a DND contractor in 2007, not long after New Brunswick scolded the department over its fumbled cleanup.

The clearcutting allowed technicians to conduct more detailed surveys of the soil, using more sophisticated electromagnetic equipment. The results were exactly what the department didn’t want to hear: There were, indeed, more UXO, including a 60 mm mortar containing high explosives discovered in an area used for blueberry picking. They also discovered a large vehicle that had been used for target practice, buried just below the surface, calling into question the quality of previous surveys.

That meant clearance operations at Tracadie would continue for the “foreseeable future.” Exactly how long that is, no one can say for sure.

This past summer, staff from Notra spent weeks walking straight lines across one of the suspected UXO areas, sweeping metre-wide paths with metal detectors and documenting every munition they encountered. It also helped cut a logging road through a former mortar range. All of this added another $950,000 to Tracadie’s tab, an indication of the liability DND can’t shake.

In coming years crews will undoubtedly be back, returning until the site is eventually cleared, if it is ever successfully cleared.

“Some people around here, they think what we’re doing here is useless,” said Luc Perron, a former Canadian soldier now working for Notra. “They don’t know much about the hazard.”


With files from Susan Krashinsky Robertson


Behind the story

Don Louis, an official with the Okanagan Indian Band in British Columbia, surveys the former Goose Lake Range.Jeff Bassett/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

It was a pair of seemingly unrelated articles – one about bullets and the other about water – that led The Globe and Mail to delve into the world of UXO, and explain the huge liability that’s hiding on the federal government’s books.

While researching an article on how Canada’s military purchases its ammunition, we came across references to military personnel conducting annual sweeps at Quebec’s Lac Saint-Pierre, retrieving hundreds of projectiles that kept washing ashore. Months later, on the other side of the country, while researching the challenges of providing safe drinking water on a First Nations reserve near Vernon, B.C., bulletins in the community about UXO hazards were hard to ignore. Signs implored children to be extra careful when playing, while the Okanagan Indian Band was seeking to recruit and train its members to become UXO technicians.

But it wasn’t until The Globe began looking into the federal money involved in UXO clearance, delving deep into the government’s public accounts, that the problem’s true extent came into focus. UXO aren’t merely a threat to public safety; they’re potentially one of the biggest financial liabilities on DND’s books. And the extent of that liability was being vastly understated by the government’s accounting. The biggest bombshell of all was that the final tab for DND’s past behavior could end up being billions of dollars.


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