Vancouver Sun

Unexploded ammo sites all over B. C.

Department of defence data reveals more than 200 locations across the province


Unexploded bombs, flares, grenades and various other pyrotechni­cs may be buried at more than 200 sites in B. C. or dumped along the coast, according to Department of National Defence data obtained by The Vancouver Sun.

The military remnants, some of which may date as far back as the First World War and also include mortars, ammunition and rockets, can be found at 143 sites from Vancouver Island to Fort Nelson, mainly in former military testing areas and firing ranges, along with 58 underwater sites along the Pacific coastline.

And they pose a potential threat to some of B. C.’ s tourism hot spots like Tofino, the Gulf Islands and the Okanagan, as well as Vancouver beaches such as Jericho.

In Tofino, for instance, an area the size of three football fields was closed in April 2012 in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve after live munitions likely dating back to the Second World War were discovered by a park visitor in the Wickaninni­sh sand dunes.

During the 1940s and 1950s, training exercises were carried out along the dunes, on Florencia Island, and in surroundin­g waters near the park’s Long Beach Unit .

“Where Wickaninni­sh Beach is, behind the Long Beach area is some really cool sand dunes. Unfortunat­ely, that’s where they found this unexploded shell and cordoned the whole thing off. They didn’t want to take any chances,” said Susan Payne of the Ucluelet Chamber of Commerce.

“Everybody knows the sand dunes. We used to go and play up there with our kids.”

The problem of unexploded ordinance has become so widespread that the federal government in 2005 created the Unexploded Explosive Ordnance ( UXO) and Legacy Sites program. Legacy sites are those once owned or used by the Department of Defence but have since been sold off to other owners such as a province, a municipali­ty, another federal department, or private owners.

There are hundreds of sites across the country, as well as 1,000 off the Atlantic coast. A firm number is impossible to pin down because many are still suspected but not confirmed, according to the department. Program staff use historical and property records, maps and interviews with local residents within the communitie­s to assess the risk, said spokesman France Bureau.

Staff also attend sites if suspicious metal is found.

“As Canada’s population increases, it is expected that people will come into more frequent contact with UXO on properties that were at one time remote, and therefore presented little risk,” the UXO program website states.

“There have been several deaths and serious injuries caused by UXO explosions in Canada. Caution is always required when entering UXO legacy sites.”

While munitions are old, some can still be set off. The metal cases can also cause injury from shrapnel.

But most people don’t even know the unexploded devices are there — until they encounter them. Two years ago, excavators working on a housing developmen­t in the 6700- block of Batchelor Bay Place in Whytecliff in West Vancouver found 16- inch artillery shells believed to date back to the First or Second World War.

The explosive shells, four inches in diameter and weighing around 15 kilograms, appeared to be heavily corroded but were still live, with detonators.

The shells had military engravings, and the Canadian Navy’s Maritime Forces Pacific, based out of Esquimalt, was called in to dispose of them.

It is unclear how the shells ended up in the area, but several sites around West Vancouver had been used to store munitions during wartime.

“Every site that was used by the military could potentiall­y have unexploded ordnance,” said Mark Berhow, who describes himself as an amateur historian in sea coast artillery. “Even after ( many) years, these things can be viable and explosive.”

Defence Constructi­on Canada’s website suggests that while most of the unexploded ordinance are found on active ranges, a significan­t amount is from the Second World War era.

Many of the sites listed in the National Defence data were part of Coast Artillery Defences, including the First Narrows ( North) Battery, where two 12- pounder quick- firing guns were temporaril­y located at the Capilano River Spit before being moved under the Lions Gate Bridge. One of the anti- aircraft guns was then placed nearby at West Vancouver’s Ambleside in 1942, posing a potential risk to that area.

Jericho Beach, once home to the Royal Canadian Air Force Seaplane Base and now a city park, was also cited on the list, along with the Steveston Battery, where in the 1940s a field emplacemen­t for two artillery guns was located on the northern bank of the mouth of the Fraser River, on top of the dike near the town. An anti- aircraft battery was also located at Steveston.

In Vernon, where eight people have died since 1945 after stumbling upon explosives left behind by training exercises at the Vernon Military Camp, a lawsuit is underway between the defence department and developer K& L Land Partnershi­p.

The company bought 1,349 acres near Kalamalka Lake for $ 15 million in 2005, where it planned to build a residentia­l subdivisio­n. The developer claimed in documents filed in B. C. Supreme Court in May that the government left behind mortars and shells when the camp closed, and neglected to inform the company when it bought the land.

The department denies the allegation­s, arguing the presence of ordnance was welldocume­nted in local lore and in the media. Defence ministry spokeswoma­n Kathleen Guillot said she could not comment on whether the department has a policy of disclosure regarding the risk of ordnance when selling the sites, citing the court proceeding­s.

Some sites have markings to warn the public of danger, but not all, Guillot said. Program staff also occasional­ly hold public and in- school informatio­n sessions.

Andre Gerolymato­s, director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University, noted the situation in B. C. is not as dire as is in places like France, where 70 to 100 people — mostly farmers — die every year from unexploded ordinances as they till their land.

But while the chances of this happening in B. C. are “pretty low,” he urged the federal government and developers to work together to identify sites.

“You don’t want to build a highrise on unexploded shells,” he said. “It’s not a good thing.

“The government has to come completely clean about where these shells are. It would be a lot cheaper now than getting lawsuits down the road.”


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