Barge piled high with mustard gas

A barge is loaded with mustard gas canisters that later were thrown somewhere into the Atlantic in 1964. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

"I won't say there's nothing there that belongs to us," said William Brankowitz, a deputy project manager in the Army Chemical Materials Agency. He's a leading authority on the Army's chemical weapons dumping.

The United States had an 18-ton stockpile of chemical weapons in Alaska after World War II, National Archives records reveal. The Army doesn't know where it all went.

The two other chemical weapons dumpsites in Canadian waters are off Sable Island and Nova Scotia, near the Grand Banks - one of the world's best fisheries. One site is spread out over at least 30 nautical miles (35 statute miles). It's presumed to have been created by the Canadian government after World War II ended.

"Fisheries are dying. The sea bottom is going bare. It's terrible," Kehoe said. "We are finding crab mutations that no one can explain. Cod are dying at their larval stage. Most of that stuff is starting to leach now" from their steel containers into the sea.

Kehoe's campaign for information - and action - has spanned 13 years and is becoming increasingly frantic.

A few years ago, the U.S.-based Hunt Oil Co. was granted a license by the Canadian government to conduct seismic testing for potential petroleum deposits off Nova Scotia.

"There is absolutely no scientific documentation on what effect oil exploration has on these dumpsites," Kehoe noted.

"There is absolutely no research on it. The National Defence Department went public, on air, saying we don't know the impact of seismic testing on these sites.

"This nightmare is going to be happening to you over there. It's horrifying."

In the United States, Congress authorized gas and oil exploration off the East and West coasts several months ago, lifting a 22-year moratorium.

Exploration is conducted by bouncing huge blasts of air that penetrate up to six miles below the seabed. It's unclear whether the practice could disturb chemical weapons dumps, but it apparently hasn't in the Gulf of Mexico, where exploration and drilling have been going on for decades.

The Canadian government hasn't decided what to do about the chemical weapons sites off its coast, said Doug Drever, a senior public affairs adviser for the Defence Department.

"We haven't even come close to thinking about diving on those sites," he said.

"We may not. It may be better to leave them undisturbed. We're dealing with the sins of our fathers. We can't change what happened in the past. All we can do is make sure it doesn't happen again and we mitigate the damages. We are dealing with it."

DUMPSITES HAVE BEEN IGNORED

The United States never used chemical weapons in war, but it amassed a huge stockpile to be unleashed if enemy forces used them first. Their existence was a known - and ultimately successful - deterrent.

Some of those stockpiles remain in storage at a handful of Army bases, awaiting destruction as required by international treaty, primarily through incineration.

The chemical weapons that were tossed into the sea have been all but ignored by the Army.

The Army admitted that it's physically examined only a few of the known dumpsites off the U.S. coast to see whether they're leaking - or whether they're more likely to be encountered as commercial fishing and oil exploration operations extended farther and farther offshore. No environmental problems were found, the Army said.

But only four of the 26 known U.S. sites were examined. And the last time was 30 years ago, in 1975.