Friday, August 19, 2005

The Freshwater Shells of Quebec

Quebec's Lac St-Pierre comprises the largest heron habitat in North America, and is a vital migratory bird sanctuary. It's also full of unexploded shells, thanks to the fifty years it spent as a test site for artillery. Some shells are on the shore, where they can be gathered up by the curious. Others lie on the lake floor. And a few, remarkably, are ambulatory:

Over the years, shells have been carried by springtime ice to as far as Île d'Orléans, past Quebec City, some 150 kilometres downriver from where they were fired.
Artillery test ranges are always problematic, and their siting tends to be short-sighted at best. But testing munitions over a body of fresh water ringed by towns is an act of truly elemental stupidity. I have no doubt that the people who dreamed up and implemented this scheme were, in some strange sense, the best and brightest of their generation, but to quote Marilynne Robinson, "their presence in roles that are ideally filled by competent people does not make them competent."

Now, a number of thoughtful people are pondering how to remove the shells from the lake. Apparently, it's easier said than done.
Captain Matt Braid, project director for the Defence Department's unexploded-ordnance program, said the pilot project would proceed next year, but he warned that removing artillery from water is complex, and coming by the technology isn't easy.
I can't tell you how much I appreciate this sober warning about the difficulties of dealing with submerged artillery...made by a representative of the very agency that saw fit to create this absurd problem in the first place, and was blithely shelling the lake until five years ago. One wishes that a person of Captain Braid's uncanny sapience had emerged at some point between the late 1950s and 2000, though one suspects that he would've been dismissed as a simpleton and a worrywart.

Paul Szabo, a liberal from Mississauga, is as puzzled by all this as I am:
Mr. Hunter, there are 300,000 projectiles remaining in the lake today, of which 8,000 are potentially dangerous. This is absolutely astounding, it really is, when I think of all of the rules and regulations we have at all levels of government, that this situation could have been allowed to be created in the first place....I know that when the minister was here, one of the points that came out was that there was not enough money in the entire defence budget to clean up all the sites that were contaminated. Do we in fact still live in an environment with a federal government that can permit this stuff to happen in the first place? Are those things closed now? Can this ever happen again? Can you promise, can you attest to this committee, that this will never, ever happen again?

Mr. Gordon Hunter: Actually, I'm going to be 55 next month, so it's pretty hard for me to make promises for the people who will be following me. I was four years old when people starting shooting into Lac Saint-Pierre in 1952. We can't really offer any explanation for the first 40 or 50 years of this....
You have to wonder how many things we're doing today that our experts will be at a loss to explain in fifty years' time.


Phila said...

Blog spammers? That's a new one on me.

Me too. Probably my stalker's work, but you never know. Comments I can delete with a perfectly clear conscience, at any rate....

Anonymous said...

Oh... it.

The folks using a lake with habitation nearby probably put more thought in to their process. And that's not saying much.

Another fine example of firing ranges/military installations gone awry is Cape Cod and the water table pollution.