Sea-Dumped Munitions Research Group

Sea-dumped munitions: An unseen threat


Since the end of World War II, there have been a number of treaties dealing with the limitations, reductions, and elimination of so-called weapons of mass destruction and their transport systems. The easiest and ‘cheapest’ way to ‘eliminate’ chemical weapons and munitions following World War II was to dump them into the oceans. As environmental awareness has increased, and the ecological repercussions of such actions have made them unacceptable, steps have been taken to prohibit the manufacturing and use of chemical weapons. However, questions as to the short and long-term effects, and ultimately the remediation of areas and populations damaged by weapons and munitions dumping, have been largely left alone. 


The disposal of chemical and biological warfare agents at sea was prohibited internationally in 1972 by the London Convention, and implemented by Canada through the Ocean Dumping Control Act in 1975. However, the recognition of multiple problems arising from the chemical munitions dumped in the Baltic Sea before 1947 led the Helsinki Commission to convene a special working group in 1992. Designated to deal with problems related to dumped chemical munitions within the Helsinki Convention Area, this special working group consisted of members representing the Baltic States and Scandinavia, along with the United Kingdom and the United States. While the Commission was able to document both the location of the major dumpsites and types and quantities of munitions, they were unable to conclusively comment on critical factors such as: (1) threat of relocation as a result of drift; (2) the present condition of the munitions; and (3) effects on aquatic lifeform behavior in the marine environment. The Commission did note, however, that some commonly dumped munitions do pose a threat to photosynthesis of plankton and to the hatching rate of crustacean eggs. Furthermore, they noted that chemical munitions pose a risk to fishermen who may inadvertently “catch” them. Despite these findings, an element notably absent from this report is a detailed assessment of the risks from munitions dumping to human populations and health. 


The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which came to force in April 1997, bans production, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical weapons, and compels its signatories to get rid of their arsenals by 2007. However, the CWC does not cover sea-dumped chemical weapons. In fact, it makes a clear exception for them (CWC, Article III, § 2). Furthermore, the CWC does not provide the legal basis to cover chemical weapons that were dumped before 1985. As a result, the dumping of chemical weapons and munitions remains an uncontrolled time bomb, with limited recognition and action by Canada and the international community to mediate its effects (Kaffka, 1996).


Sea-dumped chemical munitions in Canada


In Canada, there is little public information available on either the location of the disposal sites or their content. Some limited information exists in National and Provincial Archives, much of which must be de-classified prior to public review. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canada does not even possess chemical weapons. However, John Bryden’s Deadly Allies: Canada’s Secret War (1989) reveals the scope and extent of Canada’s involvement with chemical weapons. Bryden's book opens with a graphic description of the loading 10,982 drums - about 2,500 tonnes - of a deadly mustard blister agent onto a war-surplus ship in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1946. The ship was towed into the Atlantic and pounded by anti-aircraft guns until it sank to the ocean floor about 300 km from Sable Island, Nova Scotia.


It is also reported that large boats from Argentia, a U.S. military installation in Newfoundland,  left every two days, for a five-month period, to dump munitions and hazardous material at sea. Dumping originating from Argentia is also known to have occurred off Cape Breton Island. Moreover, a recent geophysical survey conducted by the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirms that there are two large anomalies within the Bras d’Or Lake system (inland Cape Breton) that require further investigation. The Bras d’Or lakes are a symbol to First Nations in Cape Breton and a much praised fishing ground, in addition to being a valuable tourist attraction. The documentation of these events has led to the identification of multiple dumping venues that are of relevance to this project, all located within a larger area known as 4VN.


Three dumping areas (figure 1) and 15 naval shipwrecks are known within the 4VN (figure 2) fishing area. Site 1 is a danger area containing unexploded ordnance located at 46° 10.5’ N, 59° 26.0’ W. It has a radius of approximately one mile. Site 2, identified on charts as “explosive dumping grounds”, is located at 46° 18.3’ N, 58° 39.0’ W.   It has a radius of approximately five miles.  Site 3 is just off South Bar, inside Sydney Harbour, and was commonly known as a UXO (unexploded ordnance) dumping area after WWII. 




Figure 1.  Location of Munitions Dump Sites in the Sydney Bight and adjacencies


Figure 2.  Fishing areas off Cape Breton Island


Canada’s past as a producer and disposer of chemical weapons has been so well hidden that even the military is not sure where all the remnants of its toxic stockpile are buried, or what risks they pose to the public and the environment. In July 2003, 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 (Maclean’s Magazine, August 25, 2003). This announcement, however, does not mean that a solution is at hand. With respect to site identification and possible remediation, no other organization could be considered to be in a greater conflict of interest than the Department of National Defense.


There are 75 documented dumpsites on the Atlantic Coast between Labrador and Florida.  At least 25 of these sites are located in the waters surrounding Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Last year, in a Minister’s response to Petition No. 50, the Department of National Defence confirmed the existence and location of one historical mustard gas disposal site and several old munitions disposal sites in Canadian waters. There is, therefore, no doubt that such sites pose a substantial potential risk to Canadian waters, and those who use and rely upon their resources. However, at this time these dumps can only be considered potential risks, as no research to date has examined their location, quality, or environmental and health impacts.


Risks to health and the environment


Stocks of chemical weapons similar to those dumped by Canada were dumped off the Northern Irish coast, and are periodically trawled up by unsuspecting fishermen. In one incident some years ago, the crew of the Breton trawler Aquilon was badly contaminated and required hospital treatment (Diver Magazine, May 1998). Dumped chemicals and munitions may also come ashore when the bottom is disturbed by ploughing and drilling operations. In another incident in the UK, a four-year-old boy, Gordon Baillie from Campbeltown, suffered burns to his hand and legs when a bomb he picked up on the beach ignited. In 1995, large numbers of incendiary devices were discovered around the coastline of the Firth of Clyde and adjacent areas. As they dried, some of the devices ignited. The discovery of these stranded devices coincided with the laying of a submarine gas pipeline linking Scotland to Northern Ireland.


The leakage of chemicals from the weapons resting on the seabed is also quickly becoming a problem. In the Baltic Sea, munitions dumps have started to discharge mustard ‘gas’, an oily liquid at room temperature which, when exposed to seawater, forms a thick outer crust over an inner core, allowing it to be brought to the surface where it can injure fishermen (Korotenko, 2002). In the case of sea mines, the majority of explosive charges used do not hydrolyze and most become very sensitive and volatile with age. Once saturated with salt-water, they become progressively unstable, therefore increasing risk of release and contamination over time. Rusty-looking encrustations on any item of munitions may, therefore, actually be explosive secretion, and not simple corrosion. Unfortunately, a great number of lives of experienced personnel have been lost through this misinterpretation.


The Danish authorities have recorded more than 400 cases of fishermen hauling up crusts of toxic material in their nets, and there have been deaths and injuries to those who inadvertently handled it. Fishing is now forbidden around the four main Baltic dumping grounds, which hold an estimated 300,000 tons of ammunition. In other areas, where sea currents and bottom tackle have dispersed many shells, vessels are required to stock gas masks, rubber gloves and special medical kits with anti-poison powders and injections on board in case of contamination (International Herald Tribune, June 20, 2003).


The year 2005 has been identified by NATO as one potential date where global releases of a critical nature can occur, and other estimates place this event between 2005 and 2010. The first shock wave is expected to affect the Baltic and North Seas. As a result, governments of affected nations may impose a ban on fishing. This would be a reasonable precaution to protect public health against any ill effects stemming from the consumption of contaminated sea products, such as increased incidence of cancer or genetic mutations, as well as an attempt to maintain some degree of biodiversity. Unfortunately, this measure will produce significant economic losses for fishery-dependent coastal communities.


Either ignored or kept secret by governments until the 1980s, the sea-dumps have now become a subject of debate among environmental and other concerned citizens' groups, some of whom have demanded urgent cleanups. Little is known about the effects of these chemicals on marine biology, but people touching or inhaling them are likely to get hurt. Some of the chemicals may dissipate in the water, but both chemical and conventional munitions contain others, like arsenic and mercury, that can build up in the marine food chain (bioaccumulation) and, ultimately, produce human health problems.


The human health and environmental risks of munitions constituents from ordnance and explosives are caused by the explosives themselves or other chemical components, including lead and mercury, both in the munitions and from the compounds used in or produced during munitions operations. When exposed to some of these munitions constituents, humans may potentially face long-term health problems, including cancer, and animals may develop physical health and behavioral problems. The adverse effects of munitions constituents are dependent on the concentration of the chemicals and the pathways by which receptors become exposed. Understanding the human health and environmental risks of munitions constituents and byproducts requires information about the inherent toxicity of these chemicals and the manner in which they may migrate toward potential human and environmental receptors (UXO Handbook, U.S. DoD/EPA). This requires an interdisciplinary approach that combines the natural, social, and applied sciences to understand the nature and degree of the possible environmental damage, the effects on aquatic resources, and in turn the implications for First Nations communities that have long relied on fishing in potentially contaminated waters.