WarningThis information has been archived for reference or research purposes.

Archived Content

Information identified as archived on the Web is for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It has not been altered or updated after the date of archiving. Web pages that are archived on the Web are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats on the "Contact Us" page.

The Military and the Environment

Kaho’olawe Island coastline

Canadian Press/AP photo/Lucy Pemoni/9078183

The beautiful and rugged Kaho’olawe Island coastline.

Unexploded Ordnance and the Environment – a Legacy of Past Practices

by Jeff Lewis

Print PDF

For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.


In 1993, the US Senate authorized the conveyance of Kaho’olawe from the US Navy to the State of Hawaii. This island in the Hawaiian archipelago is barely 115 square kilometres in size, and is located 11 kilometres southwest of Maui. It had been sparsely populated since the mid-1800s, and, by the Second World War, it had been all but abandoned because of its persistent lack of vegetation and fresh water. During the war, the island was designated a military training range and was subjected to heavy naval bombardment and torpedo testing by the US Navy.

Simultaneous to the aforementioned conveyance, the US Senate mandated the US Navy to pay for the “…clearance or removal of unexploded ordnance” and environmental restoration of the island, to provide “…meaningful safe use of the island for appropriate cultural, historical, archaeological, and educational purposes, as determined by the State of Hawaii.”

Clearing the unexploded ordnance from the island took nearly a decade, and work was not completed until November 2003, when the island was transferred to the State of Hawaii.  The project cost the US Navy US$460 million, and involved clearing 80 square kilometres of land, the largest unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance and environmental restoration operation in US history. The half-billion dollar price tag for this cleanup was spent to remediate an island that had been all but uninhabited for nearly two centuries, was almost devoid of vegetation, and arguably had no economic value. The US Navy was obliged to pay for its clean up, due to political decisions motivated by the cultural and historical significance of Kaho’olawe to the native Hawaiian population.1

Could something similar to this ever happen in Canada? If it did, how would the Canadian Forces (CF) pay for it? How would such a cost impact our operational obligations?  The short answer is that nobody really knows. Trying to make a prediction like this requires one to guess at how tolerant the Canadian public will remain to our UXO-contaminated lands in the coming decades. This is impossible to forecast. As unlikely as such a situation may seem, dismissing it outright is a dangerous course of action given the astronomical sums of money involved. The CF controls over 18,000 square kilometres of land across Canada, and we are held to the same federal environmental laws and regulations as any other organization operating in Canada. UXOs or ‘duds’ are a form of environmental contamination unique to the military, meaning we cannot rely upon well-established ‘off the shelf’ commercially available cleanup techniques. Finding a solution to clean up this contamination will fall squarely upon our shoulders.


The Canadian Forces of today is committed to a policy of sustainability. The army, in particular, being the most intensive land-user of the three service branches, has absorbed this message and is broadcasting it effectively to the unit level. Indeed, one of the featured links at the bottom of the Canadian Army home page deals with environmental issues, and includes a strongly supportive message from Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, the former army commander.2 However, we are still organizationally liable for the decisions impacting the environment that were taken decades previously. These legacy issues, including UXOs, have the potential to be extremely costly, and there are no easy fixes on the horizon.

For many decades prior to the release in 1992 of Policy Directive P5/92 (DAOD 4003-0), Canadian Forces and National Defence Policy on the Environment, environmental issues were simply not on the CF’s agenda. In large part, this lack of consideration was a reflection of the broader public attitude that prevailed at the time. Canada did not even have a federal Environment Ministry prior to 1971. We must be careful to avoid judging our predecessors by the standards of today – contaminated sites that currently exist are a legacy of past practices and do not necessarily represent any intentional misconduct by our predecessors. However, regardless of whether those past practices were acceptable at the time they occurred, they have caused environmental contamination with which we must deal today and into the future.

Artillery shoot, CFB Shilo.

DND (38 CBG HQ) photo LG2009-0119 by Corporal Bill Gomm

Artillery shoot, CFB Shilo.


If large enough in scope or impact, contaminated sites in Canada may trigger the intervention of federal environmental authorities. The Contaminated Sites Management Working Group (CSMWG) was established in the summer of 1995 by the Government of Canada to accelerate the cleanup of the worst-contaminated federally owned sites. This organization generated the Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan (FCSAP) in 2003. Of the 279 priority sites receiving a total of $190 million in funding from FCSAP in 2007-2008, 47 belong to the Department of National Defence (DND), for which the Department received $51 million.3 This may sound like a lot of money, but, as we will see later, costs associated with environmental cleanup can be staggering. FCSAP is a $3.5 billion, 15-year program established in 2005.4 Complicating any cleanup efforts is the fact that budgeting for the costs associated with environmental cleanup is highly speculative. A frustrating element to dealing with environmental problems is that the scope of a problem is rarely obvious when it is first discovered. Initial predictions for scope and cost can often be wildly inaccurate and even experts can have an extremely difficult time pinpointing the extent and severity of underground contamination.

The 47 DND sites identified and funded by the FCSAP are merely those that are considered the highest priority. The Federal Contaminated Sites Inventory lists a further 1383 DND properties known to be contaminated to some degree by various substances. Since the main qualification for the inclusion of a site in the inventory is that there is a concentration of a substance in the soil or groundwater (usually a petroleum product or a metal) that is higher than expected for that region of Canada, one of the most expensive forms of contamination to remediate – unexploded ordnance (UXO) – is not included. According to the DND Unexploded Explosive Ordnance and Legacy sites program, several hundred known UXO-contaminated sites exist across Canada, with a further 1100 sites off Canada’s Atlantic coast, and 26 off the Pacific coast.

Unexploded ordnance is a by-product of live fire training, and it is therefore found only on current or former military training areas. UXOs are live munitions that fail to explode as intended, and end up scattered on the surface or subsurface of military impact areas. Unlike other common forms of contamination, such as petroleum or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), used by many industries, the origin of UXOs is indisputable. Identifying and remediating UXOs is expensive because no technology exists that can reliably and cost-effectively locate them without a great deal of human labour. The need for extensive human effort, combined with the extreme security requirements of dealing with such potentially dangerous items, accounts for the high cost of cleaning them up.

According to a 2005 Norwegian study,5 indirect fire weapons, such as artillery and mortar rounds, have dud rates of around five percent. Direct fire weapons, such as the 66 mm M72 weapon, are reputed to have much higher dud rates, but very little data is available, other than qualitative observations by range control staff. These dud rounds become UXOs. A significant challenge to removal of UXOs is the fact that many of them are buried deep underground. Artillery munitions in particular hit the ground with a great deal of kinetic energy and they therefore have a tendency to bury themselves deeply. While hard scientific data concerning dud penetration is lacking, anecdotal wartime evidence provides some guidance about the depths at which UXOs may be found. The following quote is taken from The Guns of Normandy, written by George Blackburn.

“Some large calibre duds thud into the position, which would have caused damage to men and guns had they gone off. One, landing on Baker Troop, drills a hole so deep that the bottom can’t be reached with a 15 foot pole”6

Live firing CFB Gagetown

DND photo AS2006-0574a

Live firing CFB Gagetown.

No current UXO detection equipment will reliably find a 105 mm artillery round that is buried 15 feet deep. Furthermore, final identification of UXOs must still be done visually by a human operator. This is due to the fact that impact areas are covered with metal debris and shrapnel and, since the most reliable UXO detection technology relies upon electromagnetic signals, this metal debris causes a high number of ‘false positives.’ As a result, unexploded ordnance buried underground is extremely difficult and time-consuming to find – even with the best technology available. In areas where the metal debris is highly concentrated, it can all but defeat the detectors. In addition, locating UXOs is complicated by the vast expanses used as impact areas, and the rugged nature of the terrain.

The question may well be asked: “How dangerous or environmentally significant is a 105 mm round that is buried 15 feet underground?” The complicated answer involves toxicology, hydrogeology, risk assessment, and land use. Arguably, there is no rigorous reply to this question – it is simply too complex to make generalizations. However, the simple answer is that its importance will be exactly as significant as people wish to make it. For better or worse, public perception drives politics to a far greater degree than does science. If a majority of citizens decide that something absolutely needs to get cleaned up, despite scientific assurances to the contrary, then the odds are good that politicians who value their employment will vow to clean it up. Today, UXOs are ‘flying under the radar,’ with relatively few news stories dedicated to them because they impact so few people. However, as the population base sprawls outwards from our cities, pressure will build to allow residential property development on former military properties. This has already begun in the United States, with a neighbourhood in Orlando, Florida getting built upon a former bombing range. The Associated Press story dated 17 September 2008 notes:

“When residents of several neighborhoods near Orlando International Airport go to bed, they wonder what most homeowners don't: Is there a bomb under my house? They recently learned their 8-year-old developments were built on a World War II bombing range that wasn't thoroughly cleared. Now they're scared for their lives and investments and angry with developers and local government officials who residents claim shouldn't have allowed the homes in the first place.”7

Given the pace of growth around our major centres, and the many properties formerly controlled by the military that dot the fringes of our principal cities, it would appear plausible that such a scenario could indeed play out in Canada in the coming decades. While we know the histories of CFB Ottawa and Toronto well enough to generally rule out the possibility of there being dozens of UXOs hidden therein, the lack of detailed records on most former military lands makes it impossible to rigorously rule out the possibility that UXOs may exist. One credible scenario is that a formerly unknown munitions dump that was used following the Second World War turns up somewhere during construction of a new development. Another credible scenario is that a UXO turns up on land being developed into residential housing, and the CF is legally forced to buy back the land from the developer and clear it of all UXO or munitions debris. The five UXO legacy sites around Vernon, BC are of particular concern. Since 1948, seven people have been killed by UXOs in these areas, which were used for military training during the Second World War.

Leopard tank

DND photo (Valcartier imaging section) VL2009-0012-11 by Corporal Marc-André Gaudreault

Leopard tank live firing at Fort Bliss, Texas, during Exercise Reflexe Aguerri (RA09), 20 January 2009.

It is important to understand that cleaning up unexploded ordnance is phenomenally expensive, even by environmental standards. This is related to the extreme safety measures that are required when handling and disposing of these contaminants. The example given in the beginning of this article was by no means the only concrete example we have of the costs associated with UXO cleanup. Consider the cases of the Massachusetts Military Reserve, and that of the former Harvey Barracks at CFB Calgary.

In October 1997, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a precedent-setting Administrative Order for Response Action in which the National Guard respondents at Massachusetts Military Reservation (MMR) were ordered to suspend the following activities:

  1. All firing of lead ammunition or other "live" ammunition at small arms ranges at or near the Training Range and Impact Area;
  2. All artillery firing using high explosives at or near the Training Range and Impact Area;
  3. All mortar firing using high explosives at or near the Training Range and Impact Area;
  4. All planned demolition of ordnance or explosives at or near the Training Range and Impact Area, except for unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance activities;
  5. All use of artillery and mortar propellants in non-live firing of munitions at or near the Training Range and Impact Area;
  6. All use of pyrotechnics at or near the Training Range and Impact Area;
  7. All burning of propellant or propellant bags at or near the Training Range and Impact Area.8

The MMR is an 80-square-kilometre installation located on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The Training Ranges and Central Impact Area are approximately 56 square kilometres located on the Camp Edwards portion of the installation. The Central Impact Area itself is approximately eight square kilometres, consists of artillery and mortar targets, and is surrounded by firing ranges, artillery and mortar positions, and training areas. The Cape Cod Aquifer, a sole source aquifer for the western part of Cape Cod, lies directly beneath the Training Ranges and Central Impact Area. Based upon the findings of lead, explosives, explosives-related compounds, pesticides, and other organic contaminants in soils, and explosive related compounds and some organics in the groundwater, the EPA ordered the respondents to conduct feasibility studies at several MMR areas, including the Central Impact Area. The estimated total cost to investigate and clean up the source areas and groundwater plumes was estimated to be $817 million in 2001.9 More recent cost estimates have not been published, but characterization and cleanup efforts are ongoing 11 years after the initial Administrative Order. Cleanup costs at MMR did not exclusively go towards UXO cleanup. A cost breakdown of how much has been spent for UXO clearance alone has not been made public. However, the source of the explosives that caused the contamination to begin with is suspected to be either ammunition dumps or UXOs.

Harvey Barracks in Calgary is ‘a bit closer to home.’ Cleanup of UXOs at the former site began in 1998, and was completed in 2004. The total area cleared during this time was 940 acres, or 3.8 square kilometres. The 19 April 2004 DND Backgrounder 10 puts the total cleanup costs of Harvey Barracks at $73 million: $66 million from DND, and $7 million from the predecessor to the FCSAP.

Canadian soldiers making good use of a shell hole on the Western Front during the First World War

Library and Archives Canada/DND/1964-114 NPC

Canadian soldiers making good use of a shell hole on the Western Front during the First World War.

What about Europe? After all, enormous tracts of land have been ravaged by two world wars, and UXOs are ubiquitous. In France, farmers plow up a new crop of UXOs every year. It is such a common occurrence that it has been named the ‘iron harvest.’ It is estimated that 12 million unexploded munitions are still to be found in the farmland around the town of Verdun.11 The French Département du Déminage recovers approximately 815 tonnes of unexploded munitions every year, and 630 démineurs have been killed in the line of duty since 1945.12 Although the European experience may give us a sense of reassurance that no ruinously expensive remediation will be forthcoming, there are some important differences between the European and North American situations. Foremost is that in the US and Canada, the military currently has sole ownership of the affected lands, and we are easily identifiable as the originators of the problem. Landowners in France have a stake in the situation because title to the contaminated land has always rested in civilian hands. It is relatively easy to demand that a governmental agency fully remediate land of any contamination they have generated. However, it is quite another thing to upset the lives of hundreds of thousands of private citizens in order to clean up a mess that was created by enemy action.

Verdun after its devastation during WWI

©Corbis Corporation/Bettmann Collection/PG3091A

Verdun after its devastation during the First World War.

A situation that is a bit more relevant to Canada is found in Norway. In March 1999, the Norwegian parliament decided to decommission the Hjerkinn training range and turn it into a wildlife and conservation area. The Hjerkinn range was established in 1923, is roughly 165 square kilometres, and is located in a remote area approximately 370 kilometres north of Oslo.; The entire range is considered a UXO risk zone, with estimated densities reaching 6000 UXOs per square kilometre in some areas. The iron-rich soil and high density of metal fragments have defeated electronic and electromagnetic detection methods, and the primary clearance method has been visual identification by military UXO clearance teams. Extensive use of flails or other heavy earth-moving equipment was not possible, given that the area was destined to become a wildlife conservation area. In 2006 and 2007, there were 659 UXOs larger than 19 mm found and destroyed, and about 69 tonnes of metal scrap was removed from the range. Phase 1 of the cleanup was scheduled to run from 2006 to 2012, and has a total budget of 272 million Norwegian kronor (approximately $C50 million). Phase 2 of the cleanup will run from 2013 to 2020. While these costs are lower than those for Kaho’olawe, the scope of work is also significantly less ambitious. Clearance has largely been limited to Level 1 (surface) clearance, and from the estimated UXO densities of up to 6000 per square kilometre, the removal of 659 munitions in two years suggests that the large majority of ordinance at Hjerkinn is ‘still out there.’

How likely is it that the CF would ever be mandated to undertake such a cleanup? The majority of our training land is in marginal or inaccessible locations, which cannot really support any economic activity other than perhaps logging, so comparisons with Hjerkinn are relevant. However, it must also be considered that political decisions are often taken for reasons that go beyond economic rationales. Aboriginal concerns are often a significant factor in such decisions, Kaho’olawe being one case in point. Another example of this is that 13 of the sites considered high priority under the FCSAP are former DEW line facilities located hundreds or thousands of kilometres from any significant economic activity, or even any human settlement.13 Thirty years ago, the suggestion that tens of millions of dollars would be spent cleaning up these tiny, remote Arctic sites would have been greeted with disbelief. Today, suggesting that our vast training bases may someday be obliged to undergo a similar level of cleanup may appear similarly farfetched. However, the fact is that Canadians are becoming more environmentally aware and they are holding their federal institutions – including DND – to higher and higher levels of environmental accountability. Is a large-scale, mandated cleanup likely to occur any time soon? Perhaps not. However, failing to plan for such an eventuality could end up being a very costly error.

The Way Ahead?

Therefore, what can be done today to limit our liability in the future? As far as making an effort to begin a meaningful cleanup of unexploded ordnance, unfortunately, the response is “very little.” The periodic sweeps performed by Range Control on most of our training ranges do eliminate many of the surface UXOs, but the majority of those that are buried are never found. Even when Level 2 clearance is performed in the immediate sub-surface, frost heaving will bring new UXOs to the surface every year, as the French farmers around Verdun know all too well. The fact is that once an area has been contaminated with UXO, there can never be a 100 percent guarantee of clearance. The sheer size and ruggedness of our training areas defeats many of the common technologies used to find buried UXOs, such as the EM 61 family of detectors. Furthermore, we have few historical records that could provide guidance with respect to where to look for munitions that were fired in the period between Confederation in 1867 and 1980.

Canadians clearing land mines near Bos Petrovac, Bosnia-Herzegovina

DND photo (DGPA/J5PA) ISD01-1003a by Sergeant Gerry Pilote

Canadians clearing land mines with a flail unit as part of the NATO Stabilization Force (SFOR) near Bos Petrovac, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The best we can do today is to ensure that the problem does not get worse, and perhaps invest in research to improve remote-detection technology. The army has instituted a policy that limits bases to use only existing impact areas and to not create new ones. While this will reduce the problem in the future, it is not a perfect solution. The biggest step we can take at present is to make an effort to stop producing UXOs. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to assess the long-term economic benefits of measures that may cost a bit more to implement today, but that may reduce our liability in the future. The technology is available today that can almost totally eliminate dud rounds. This would have the very desirable effect of preventing UXOs from accumulating on training ranges. However, this technology results in a more expensive ‘off-the-shelf’ munition. Is the long-term benefit worth the extra cost? From a strictly economic standpoint, nobody knows. Encouragingly, the Director General – Environment (DGE) recently launched an R&D Task Demonstration Program (TDP) to look at the development of ‘greener’ munitions having components that will have fewer adverse environmental impacts, including a lower dud rate. Such initiatives must be encouraged, and greener munitions need to be developed in short order.

Another promising initiative set up to respond to future issues concerning UXO contamination is the DND UXO and Legacy Sites Program created in 2005. This program is using historical data to locate sites where UXOs may be found on land which no longer belongs to DND. To date, several hundred such legacy sites have been identified, scattered across Canada. Historical data on dud rates and the locations of impact areas being virtually nonexistent prior to about 1980, there is, in most cases, at least a 60-year gap of knowledge with respect to what munitions were fired, where they were fired, and to what effect they were fired. This data gap makes cleanup efforts significantly more challenging, because virtually all military training land must be considered to have been a possible impact area at some point in time.

Unexploded ordnance is by no means the only environmental challenge facing the military, due to past practices. However, because of the many unknowns involved in trying to figure out the extent of the contamination, as well as the public reaction if a problem materializes, it has the potential to be one of the most expensive issues with which to deal. Nobody can know how far mandatory environmental remediation will be pushed in the coming decades, but it is in our best interest to get a jump on it, and to do what we can today to limit future UXO contamination and liability. We need financial contingencies to respond to the possibility of high-cost remediation in the coming decades. We also need to fund basic R&D in order to figure out innovative ways to find and dispose of buried unexploded ordnance.  Being proactive by starting to clean things up and by funding research without being mandated to do so is a simple way to reduce remediation costs down the road. Such actions also build public trust in our ability to sustainably manage our training lands.

Controlled destruction of UXOs in Afghanistan

DND photo IS2005-2032a by Sergeant Frank Hudec

Controlled destruction of UXOs in Afghanistan.


We are fortunate in Canada in that we have enormous military ranges. We have the two largest ground-based training areas in the British Commonwealth – CFB Suffield is 2690 square kilometres and CFB Gagetown is 1129 square kilometres. CFB Petawawa, CFB Valcartier, and CFB Wainwright are all larger than most of the training areas available to European nations. These bases offer our soldiers training opportunities that are the envy of many of our allies. The unexploded ordnance found on these bases is largely a legacy of past practices, but we have been left ‘holding the bag.’ There are no easy answers, but by deploying our available resources intelligently we can take the necessary steps to begin improving the situation for those that will follow.

CMJ Logo

Major (ret’d) Jeff Lewis, CD, B.Eng., M.Eng., PhD, was a military engineering officer in the Canadian Forces for 17 years prior to retirement in 2010. Currently, he is a researcher with the Swedish Defence Research Agency in Umeå, Sweden.


  1. K. Bosser, “Reclaiming Kahoolawe,” in Geospatial Solutions, September 2004, pp. 1-4.
  2. http://www.army.forces.gc.ca/land-terre/life-vie/environment-environnement/policy-politique-eng.asp.
  3. http://www.ec.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=En&n=714D9AAE-1&news=81941DCD-F8FA-4012-9266-CEC4F186B0F7.
  4. http://srv119.services.gc.ca/AHRDSInternet/general/Publication/PublicationDocs/
  5. Ove Dullum, “Risk assessment of civilian use of an abandoned firing range.” NDRF Summer conference, 24-25 August 2005, Stockholm Sweden, available at:http://www.ndrf.dk/documents/groupp/SS05-Dullum-02.pdf
  6. George Blackburn, The Guns of Normandy - A Soldier’s Eye View, France 1944 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995), p. 145.
  7. Associated Press “Explosive Real Estate: Florida Homes Built Atop WWII Bombing Range,” 17 September 2008.
  8. EPA Docket No. SDWA-1-97-1019, “In the matter of Training Ranges and Impact Area, Massachusetts Military Reserve.”
  9. DND Backgrounder BG-04.009 “Environmental Cleanup at Harvey Barracks, on the site of the former CFB Calgary,” 19 April 2004.
  10. Donovan Webster, Aftermath: The Remnants of War: From Landmines to Chemical Warfare - The Devastating Effects of Modern Combat (New York: Random House, 1996).
  11. David O. Russell, “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Humankind,” in The Atlantic, December 2004.
  12. Environment Canada Backgrounder “Federal Contaminated Sites Receiving Funds, 2007-2008, available at: http://www.ec.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=En&n=714D9AAE-1&news=81941DCD-F8FA-4012-9266-CEC4F186B0F7
  13. http://www.uxocanada.forces.gc.ca

Top of Page