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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Torpedo Testing Under Fire

Air Date: Week of

With 28,000 torpedoes tested to date, a United States-Canadian test water site near Vancouver, British Columbia is under pressure from fishermen and environmentalists to cease Cold War games and return the area for sea life habitat. Bob Carty of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation provides this report.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. To help prepare for the defense of North America from foreign military threats, the US and Canadian navies use a number of test sites for their high-powered weapons. Among these are submarine warfare ranges off St. Croix in the Caribbean, and off Vancouver Island on the Canadian West Coast. Antiwar activists have long tried to shut these ranges down, and now in Vancouver they have a new set of allies: environmentalists and fishers. Together, they are calling for an end to torpedo tests and other submarine war games in these key fishing grounds. Bob Carty of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has our story.

(Motors running)

DALZELL: The air we're flying over now is Georgia Straits. This is the Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental and Test Ranges. We test basically underwater units: torpedoes, underwater vehicles, things of that nature.

CARTY: Commander Mike Dalzell is an officer in the Canadian Navy who goes to work every day in a helicopter. It's a short trip, a little hop from the east coast of Vancouver Island to a rock outcropping that serves as headquarters for the world's best torpedo and submarine test range. Across the Strait of Georgia you can see the suburbs of Vancouver, yet most Canadians don't even know that war games go on in their neighborhood waters.

DALZELL: The reason the range is here, it's a very large body of water, about 75 square miles. It's deep, it's about 1,400 feet overall. It has a soft, muddy bottom which allows us to recover any of the torpedoes we fire. We've fired somewhere in the area of 28,000 torpedoes. We've never had any damage to people or to personal property in all that time operating.

(Commercial: man's voice over background music: "The Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental and Test Ranges, more commonly known as CFMETR, is a joint Canadian-American operation and is North America's most sophisticated 3-dimensional underwater weapons test range...")

CARTY: CFMETR is basically a big block of water with a lot of sonar equipment on the bottom to track torpedoes and submarines in 3 dimensions. Canadian military commanders insist the test range is safe. All the torpedoes used are unarmed. They claim the base is good for jobs and necessary for defense, and they've put all those arguments into a $100,000 promotional video.

(Video and voice over continued: "In these waters, important work is being carried out by the men and women of the Canadian forces. Work that's essential to the continued security of all Canadians...")

CARTY: The video is actually a sign of how sensitive the Canadian military is to the growing opposition to CFMETR. One of its longstanding opponents, a local peace group called the Nanoose Conversion Campaign, has produced its own video, at about 1% of the cost of the military one, and a video with quite a different tone.

(Submarine beats and suspenseful music, a man's voice over: "This is a United States nuclear powered marine. It is designed to unleash a fury of nuclear weapons of unimaginable destructive power. Their regular presence in British Columbia goes virtually unnoticed by the millions of people who live only a few miles from their path...")

CARTY: The central concern of local peace groups is the fact that US nuclear submarines regularly transit Canadian waters, carrying weapons systems that can blow up the world. Michael Candler is the coordinator of the Nanoose Conversion Campaign.

CANDLER: We have to live with the routine threat of a nuclear accident because of the floating nuclear warships coming into Georgia Strait to do Cold War testing at a Canadian facility that's used 75% of the time by the United States. And they're saving $2 billion over the 30 years. It's absurd. It's crazy.

CARTY: But Commander Mike Dalzell argues the test range is necessary because, well, the world is a bit crazy.

DALZELL: The Canadian government's position has been one of, that we should be capable of going out there in anywhere around the world, and operating in a threat environment. And the thing I want to mention here is that we monitor the submarines, we monitor them before they come into the harbor and we monitor them after they've gone. There's been no indication at all of any increase in radioactivity. There is always some risk, okay, but the risk is so low that basically Canada has felt that it is safe to operate these vessels in our waters.

CARTY: And Canada still supports the test range. Although its enthusiasm now seems to be a bit ambiguous. In June the latest 10-year Canada-US treaty for operating CFMETR came to an end. It has not yet been renewed. That means the test range keeps operating under the terms of the old treaty. Critics of the base say this is a perfect opportunity to close it down, and that there are mounting reasons to do so.

(Someone punches into a keyboard)

DALZELL: So what I'm going to do is I'm just going to start up the replay, so we see the torpedo being launched, it goes down to depth. Right now it's doing about 26 knots.

CARTY: When the test range is operating it gives new meaning to the phrase "Run silent, run deep." The only activity you can see is in the control room, where officers monitor a huge computer screen.

(More typing on a keyboard)

DALZELL: You can see right now it's looking out kind of measured targets, and sees the submarine, alters to intercept the submarine. If this was designed as an actual torpedo, that would have hit the submarine.

CARTY: But none of this is visible to the public, a reason, perhaps, for the low profile the test range has maintained for 30 years. Also invisible is the 30 years of garbage left behind. And that's what bothers Norman Abbey. Norman Abbey describes himself as a biologist, a sailor, and a tree planter, who joined the campaign against the base because of environmental concerns.

ABBEY: When the test fire these torpedoes, I guess the torpedoes are probably worth about a million dollars each so they want to recover them. The way they do that is that at the end of the torpedo's test run they eject a chunk of lead about 16.2 kilograms of lead I believe. That is just jettisoned onto the bottom of the Georgia Strait, and then the torpedo rises up to the surface. Now, they've tested I think something like 28,000 torpedoes out there over the years, so that as a result there's more than a million kilograms of lead lying in chunks littered around the bottom.

CARTY: Public concern about the toxic effects of heavy metals like lead have prodded the Canadian Navy to conduct an environmental impact assessment of the test range. That study concludes the range has no measurable impact on the environment. Lieutenant Daniel Harris is the officer in charge of American forces at CFMETR.

HARRIS: There are a number of things that we're going to work on to eliminate or reduce the amount of lead that's inadvertently being placed on the bottom. But by the same token, I don't feel that what we've done so far has adversely affected the environment.

CARTY: But ecologist Norman Abbey points out that the environmental impact assessment admits the base has dumped 2,200 tons of garbage on the ocean floor, and that there is no plan for a site clean-up upon termination.

ABBEY: There's literally thousands of miles of fine guidance wires; that also has left littering along the bottom. The sonar buoys are powered by lithium sulfate batteries; when those sink to the bottom you've got lithium sulfate. That's prime salmon habitat. And in British Columbia, as on the east coast, the fisheries are in a severe crisis. I mean, we should be using that for fishing and for providing a habitat.

TOLGIA: I fish and go up side the Preser River, beautiful day, sunny day, no wind.

CARTY: Mike Tolja is a recent opponent of the torpedo and submarine test range. He's a member of another group of Canadians, people who fish or sail or work on these waters, who are concerned about the submarines that CFMETR attracts.

TOLJA: And this American submarine running straight right into my net, and is cutting the net like nothing. So I yelling out at the guys towards the tower and they just do the hands like that: who care about you, your net? They don't even say they are sorry what they did cutting my net.

CARTY: When the test range was first established, the Strait of Georgia was relatively unpopulated. Now it's one of the fastest growing areas in Canada. So it's not surprising there have been other recent cases of a submarine sinking a sailboat and an old torpedo turning up in a fish net. Critics say this is not the place for a torpedo and submarine test range, and those critics include some surprising voices.

BUSH: My name is Captain James T. Bush, US Navy Retired. I was in the United States Navy for 26 years, I spent 10 of those years in submarines. It's difficult to pick up a submarine either visually or by radar. It is somewhat dangerous to operate in restricted waters. I think that that's another reason why the US submarines should not be routinely operating in CFMETR. If you're going to take a dangerous ship with a dangerous propulsion plant, you should operate it, as far as I'm concerned, in American waters and not in foreign waters.

(Water splashing)

CARTY: CFMETR is now under concerted attack. Environmentalists want the government to lay pollution charges against it. Provincial politicians are trying to use it as a bargaining chip, threatening to keep US subs off the test range until Alaska agrees to reduce its catch of Canadian salmon. Meanwhile, the volume of submarine traffic coming to the base is declining in the wake of tighter defense budgets. The world's best torpedo and submarine test range is sailing into troubled waters. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty on Vancouver Island.



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