Old ordnance under the sea may be toxic — study

Unexploded munitions lying under the sea leak cancer-causing toxins, a new study shows.

The research, to be presented at a conference in Hawaii next month, looked at a naval gunnery and bombing range off Puerto Rico where many munitions failed to explode. But James Porter, the ecologist who conducted the study on reefs at the eastern end of Isla de Vieques, said he would expect to find the same results anywhere in the world that bombs and bullets have been dumped into the sea, including Nova Scotia.

"The problem that we have studied looks at the unexploded ordnance, which then lie on the sea floor, corrode and leak these toxic materials into the ocean," Mr. Porter said Friday in a telephone interview from his office at the University of Georgia.

"It’s not a problem that’s isolated in one country. I would think every nation that has a coastline would have this problem."

This province has more than its fair share of unexploded ordnance in its waters, said Terry Long, a Cape Breton man who is organizing next month’s Second International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions.

"There’s more than 3,000 munitions sites off the coast of Nova Scotia," said Mr. Long, a former military engineer who now works on ordnance and munitions disposal.

"There are approximately 45 shipwrecks in Halifax Harbour, of which 35 contain munitions. The Bedford Basin is full of munitions from the 1945 (Bedford) Magazine explosion."

Representatives of the Department of National Defence are slated to attend the Feb. 25-27 conference in Honolulu.

But a DND spokeswoman said she was unable to provide answers Friday to questions about dangers posed by unexploded ordnance in Canadian waters.

One of the most common toxins found in the Puerto Rico study was trinitrotoluene, commonly known as TNT.

"There were, in fact, eight different cancer-causing chemicals that we found in high concentrations," Mr. Porter said.

He found the substances had made their way into corals and sea urchins in high concentrations.

"One coral colony had 600 milligrams per kilogram TNT in the flesh of a living coral," he said. "That’s horrifically high, and it exceeds the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s) cancer-causing safety standards."

Toxins were also found in more mobile sea life, including lobster and fish, but those levels were within acceptable health limits, Mr. Porter said.

"The next study that needs to be done would be by oncologists, who would try to find out whether the seafood, which does have these chemicals in them — that’s what we’ve shown — is being consumed in quantities that would explain the cancers (in the local human population)," he said.

Militaries, including Canada’s, clean up their ranges on land by removing unexploded ordnance.

"One of the things I would like to see is to have that common practice of range maintenance extended to include the shallow, near-shore environment," Mr. Porter said. "There’s no reason why these things shouldn’t be picked up. We can do it; we have the technology to do this."

His co-author, James Barton, has built a remote-control machine that lifts unexploded ordnance off the ocean floor, puts it in a basket and sends it to the surface for disposal.

"It looks sort of like an underwater backhoe," Mr. Porter said.

Cleaning up unexploded munitions off this province’s coasts would create work and help counter the effects of the recession, Mr. Long said.

"We’ve got 3,000 sites off Nova Scotia but we don’t have any cleanups going, not one active cleanup," he said.

"The time is right. Let’s put our people to work and clean up these sites."

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