Underwater Munitions and the Pollution of Military Activities

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This is the first post in the Perennial Problems series exploring the intersections of environmental history and histories of health


On 23 June 1982, Pierre Gentes and several family members and friends were celebrating St. Jean Baptiste day near the town of Nicolet, Quebec. The group gathered for a bonfire on the shores of Lac Saint-Pierre, a freshwater lake located in the St. Lawrence River between Trois-Rivières and Sorel-Tracy. However, the celebration took a disastrous turn when someone picked up what they thought was a piece of driftwood and threw it on the fire. The “driftwood” was not, in fact, waterlogged timber: it was a corroded artillery shell that had washed up on the beach and contained about two kilograms of high explosives. The resulting explosion killed Gentes instantly and wounded nine others, some of whom still suffer from hearing loss today. Speaking with reporters nearly 25 years after the incident, Gentes’s older brother told Maclean’s that, “every spring, there is still ammunition that we find on the beach … [The Department of National Defence] should have done something [about it] a long time ago.”

After decades of inaction the government is doing something now. In 2007, it started funding several programs through Defence Construction Canada (DCC) which are aimed at identifying and removing shells from the area. So far DCC has succeeded in removing “hundreds” of projectiles, but the cleanup will likely take decades to complete. The Canadian military operated the Munitions Experimental Test Centre in Nicolet for nearly 50 years and used Lac Saint-Pierre as a gun range for training artillery units and testing the latest bomb technologies. Consequently, an estimated 300,000 rounds litter the surrounding shoreline and lake bed, perhaps 8,000 of which failed to detonate and are now classified as unexploded ordnance (UXO). The mayor of Nicolet calls the lake, which was designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve after the military closed the range in 2000, a “cemetery of shells.”

Unfortunately, the tragedy at Lac Saint-Pierre is far from unique; not only in Canada but around the world, as the hidden legacies of past conflicts and military activities continue to pollute landscapes and marine environments. Military pollution may not receive the attention it deserves, but it carries significant ramifications that remain long after armies are disbanded. Modern militaries are some of the largest organizations created by humans, and as Edmund Russell, Jacob Hamblin, and many others have shown, they are responsible for generating a diverse range of pollution. In fact, many issues concerning environmentalists during the twentieth century and beyond were somehow related to the military-industrial complex or military activities more generally. Chief among them were insecticides, defoliants, and radioactive fallout, but as Spencer Weart has explained, the discovery of global warming would never have been possible without funding from the American Department of Defense.[1]

The environment and military activities are so closely entwined that Gary Machlis and Thor Hanson have suggested creating a new interdisciplinary field called “warfare ecology.” In order to better understand warfare as a human activity that causes immense ecological change, they argue that its impacts need to be studied through three stages: preparations, combat, and postwar activities.[2] For military historians, in particular, such a perspective is quite informative because it assigns greater agency to nature, while also suggesting that broader chronologies and contexts (beyond the war years) should be considered when studying past conflicts. For environmental historians, especially those studying the twentieth century, it reveals how the conduct and legacies of war have shaped environmental movements and issues over time, while also highlighting how the “long shadows” of modern warfare – destruction, contamination, slow violence, restoration, etc. – fit into non-military themes and topics in the field.[3]

Which brings us back to the tragic events on the shores of Lac Saint-Pierre. Within the context of troops training for combat and faulty cleanup and disposal activities, a serene environment was transformed into a deadly place by a specific form of military pollution: underwater munitions. “Underwater munitions” is a catchall term that defines all types of ammunition, explosives, chemical weapons, and their constituents that were submerged in water. This includes UXOs from training and combat operations, but, as the video below shows, it also includes the millions of tons of ordnance that were intentionally dumped into the world’s oceans, rivers, and lakes.

From the late-1910s to the mid-1970s, the militaries of almost every industrialized country used dumping as a primary method for the disposal of surplus and damaged munitions. Although the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union sunk the most quantities worldwide, other countries like France, Belgium, Germany, Australia, Japan, and Canada regularly dumped unneeded ordnance. For instance, in October 1945 the Canadian military dumped an average of about 500 tons per week off the coasts of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland. As I discussed in a 2017 article, today there are an estimated 3,000 dumpsites off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Canada that contain conventional explosives, ammunition, chemical weapons, and radioactive waste.[4]

Map of possible dumpsites around Nova Scotia. The coloured blocks are areas identified for oil and gas exploration (2003). Source: Terrence Long, International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions (IDUM).

Although it is impossible to predict all the likely scenarios involving human encounters with this form of military pollution, the risk of exposure to underwater munitions is elevated in areas near where dumping occurred. Exposure can happen by direct or indirect contact. Direct exposure is triggered by the weapons fulfilling their intended purposes by detonating or otherwise releasing their toxic contents after being disturbed, like the bomb that killed Pierre Gentes in 1982. Indirect exposure can occur at a microscopic level, as corrosion disperses particles and derivative products into marine and coastal environments. This is occurring in sites around the world, such as the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, where recent scientific investigations found “a potential for elevated cancer risks” from oral ingestion of TNT and RDX residues (both are toxic substances).[5]

Whether by direct or indirect contact, exposure happens most often when humans use the sea for economic benefit, leisure, or sustenance – meaning that particular demographics and industries face higher risk-levels. Fishermen are by far the most likely group to encounter underwater munitions, while people working in the shipping, tourist, and energy industries face significant risks as well – particularly when dredging, drilling, or building new pipelines or wind farms. Any time the seabed is disturbed, bombs or their components are liable to explode or migrate with water currents where they can wash up on shorelines and endanger tourists. In this case, white phosphorus is perhaps the greatest threat because it looks just like amber (something curious that a child might pick up at the beach), but it is a very dangerous incendiary that, when dry, can self ignite at 1,300℃.[6]

In many places around the world, underwater munitions are a perennial problem for those whose livelihoods are connected to the sea: their dangerous potential remains hidden and dormant until unleashed upon unsuspecting victims by corrosion or anthropogenic activities. Yet we must also remember that underwater munitions are just one part of a much a larger history of environmental degradation caused by military activities.


Notes

[1] Edmund Russell, War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects from World War I to Silent Spring (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Jacob Hamblin, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Spencer R. Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
[2] Gary E. Machlis and Thor Hanson, “Warfare Ecology,” BioScience 58, 8 (September, 2008): 729-736.
[3] Simo Laakkonen, Richard P. Tucker, and Timo Vuorisalo, eds., The Long Shadows: A Global Environmental History of the Second World War (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2017); Charles E. Closmann, ed., War and the Environment: Military Destruction in the Modern Age (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2009).
[4] Alex Souchen, “‘Under Fathoms of Saltwater’: Canada’s Ammunition Dumping Program, 1944-1947,” Canadian Military History 26, 2 (Fall 2017): 1-34.
[5] Hans Sanderson, et al., “Civilian exposure to munitions-specific carcinogens and resulting cancer risks for civilians on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques following military exercises from 1947 to 1998,” Global Security: Health, Science and Policy 2(1) (2017): 52.
[6] Helsinki Commission (HELCOM), Chemical Munitions Dumped in the Baltic Sea: Report of the ad hoc Expert Group to Update and Review the Existing Information on Dumped Chemical Munitions in the Baltic Sea, Baltic Sea Environmental Proceeding No. 142 (Helsinki: Baltic Marine Environmental Protection Commission, 2013), 56-57.
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Alex Souchen is the author of War Junk: Munitions Disposal and Postwar Reconstruction in Canada (UBC Press, 2020). His research examines the Second World War, Canadian society, and the environment. He received his PhD from the University of Western Ontario in 2016.

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