A Leitches Creek man has confirmed the Bras d’Or Lake was once the site of military training that resulted in the deposit of expended munitions and possible unexploded ordnance.
Terry Long, a retired military engineer trained in munitions disposal, said the Department of National Defence confirmed last week that the renowned body of water situated in the centre of Cape Breton was used for military training exercises for several decades beginning in the 1920s.
Long has spent two decades trying to confirm the presence of underwater munitions in what is now a UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve.
He suspected the Bras d’Or played a significant role in naval training partially because it would have made an ideal spot for drills in a region of Canada with a strong military presence.
Ottawa has confirmed that the lake was used for training by the Royal Canadian Navy by way of an underwater torpedo range, air forces bombing range and a gunnery range.
Activities are believed to have been spread out between East Bay and the Eskasoni First Nation, Little Bras d'Or and possibly Baddeck.
Spokesperson for DND Jessica Lamirande said Wednesday that in 2003, as a result of anecdotal reports that chemical munitions were dumped in the Bras d’Or, divers investigated the referenced grid co-ordinates and were unable to find any evidence of military materials.
However, the department acknowledged that such training activities would have resulted in the deposition of the remnants of expended munitions and possible unexploded ordnance.
The department said it will continue to be responsible for known unexploded ordnance and will revisit its decision to leave the site alone should new information about risk be brought to light.
Because of the types and quantities of explosives involved in the activities on the Bras d’Or, in a worst-case scenario, DND said an assessment found its hazard severity to be minor.
They say an ammunition depot was also constructed in 1942 in Johnstown, but according to DND, all ammunition was eventually removed from the depot in 1957 and the site permanently closed.
“(This is) the first acknowledgement that there are sites and now we have to better understand what’s going on in the lake,” said Long. “The more we look into the documents or the sources of the documents, the more we learn about what actually transpired in the past.”
In 2004, Long founded the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions, a non-governmental organization that provides a platform for industry, politicians and stakeholders to explore the issue.
Long said the Canadian government’s risk assessment of the Bras d’Or doesn’t necessarily consider the overall impact of the presence of munitions.
A DND assessment has concluded that development of the lake may encounter munitions scrap, with the probability of interacting with an unexploded ordnance and having an unintentional functioning to be extremely improbable.
“We look at threat a little differently — we don’t only look at the energetic threat, we look at human health and environment,” said Long.
Long said Eskasoni’s elders have spoken of prior encounters with munitions in the Bras d’Or, including seeing them sticking out of the ice.
The federal government says while there is anecdotal evidence of such encounters, there is no historical documentation to support those incidences during the timeline of 1940-1980.
Two potential dump sites were also identified within the Bras d’Or, but no corroborating evidence was found.
Long filed a number of Access to Information requests in 2015 related to military training in the Bras d’Or. He said information was released last week at the Collaborative Environmental Planning Initiative for the Bras d’Or Lake upon invitation by Senator Dan Christmas.
Long said the recent disclosure falls in line with his proposal to develop an international marine training centre for innovative science and technology for sea-dumped weapons. The facility is planned for construction somewhere along the shores of the biosphere.
“This is an opportunity where the international centre could actually use the sites in the Bras d’Or Lake as sort of a training area and a study area to better understand what’s happening to the biosphere,” said Long.
“There’s hundreds of (munitions) sites off the shores of Cape Breton, off of Nova Scotia.”
Long said the proposal is backed by Peter Thomson, the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Ocean.
In a speech to Long’s organization, Thomson described underwater munitions as “silent killers” as he said they are point source emitters of pollution that often go undetected.
Thomson wished Cape Breton all the best in its effort to further develop a science centre.
“We recognize that the well-being of present and future generations is inextricably linked to the health and productivity of our ocean,” Thomson said.
Long said it’s important that residents do not fear swimming in the Bras d’Or as a result of the government’s findings.
“What’s important about these findings is its ability to help us narrow in on areas of concern so we can further investigate them,” he said.
DND said no work is planned to determine where specifically navy gunnery and torpedo training was undertaken in the Bras d’Or Lake.