Explosives possible at site of future B.C. park

The southern British Columbia community of Vernon is hoping to turn land that the Department of National Defence has used for military training into a nature park — but the site could still be littered with military explosives.

The southern British Columbia community of Vernon is hoping to turn land that the Department of National Defence has used for military training into a nature park.

There's just one problem — the DND says the 56-hectare plot might still be littered with explosives similar to those that have cost eight area residents their lives since the Second World War.

Roses Pond, which is now home to several different types of wildlife and sits in an area just outside Vernon referred to locally as the Commonage, was first used by the military in 1942.

Until the war came to an end, Canadian soldiers conducted training exercises inside the Commonage that involved anything from small arms to anti-tank munitions to grenades and mortar shells.

Jonathon Preston, a spokesman for DND's Unexploded Explosives Ordnance and Legacy Sites program, said many of those mortar shells might still be in the ground, ready to go off at a moment's notice.

"Until the risk assessment process has been completed, it is not possible to say with certainty what level of risk remains today," he said in an email.

"It is impossible to provide an answer to this question due to the availability, or lack thereof, of accurate information and records pertaining to military training and clearance practices of the time."

Metal objects to be excavated

DND officials are still conducting research to determine how safe the area might be. As part of the geophysical survey, they must try to track all buried metal objects using technology similar to that of an X-ray. Each item, from mortar shells to pop cans, must be individually excavated.

Vernon Mayor Wayne Lippert said the excavation process could run up to one year.

Lippert said Roses Pond is already something of a tourist destination because of its abundant wildlife, and the city and North Okanagan Regional District only want to formalize trails around the pond and build a small parking lot.

The mayor conceded, however, that even if DND formally signs off on the plan, he'll always have a slight tinge of anxiety about the area.

"We know there's a risk, there's the possibility of it," he said, referring to the chance a mortar shell might go off near a civilian.

"We [will] make sure we do everything we can to mitigate that risk."

Lippert said two boy scouts were killed in the 1960s after they found a mortar shell and started examining it.

But he said most area residents know ordnance is afoot and are used to watching out for danger, exploding or otherwise.

"There's rattlesnakes around up there too and we can't stop someone from getting snakebit," he said.

"We can educate, put up signs, and make sure that trails are in place to keep people as safe as possible and aware of whatever danger may be around."

There are five DND legacy sites near Vernon in all, plus a still-active military training area. In addition to the Commonage, the legacy sites include Cosens Bay, Coldstream Ranch, Goose Lake, and Madeline Lake.

DND previously conducted two major sweeps of these areas, one in 1973 and the other in 1992. The first operation turned up 64 bits of ordnance; the second unearthed 11. Smaller scale clean-ups were staged between 1946 and 1963.

The eight fatalities have occurred in the Commonage and Cosens Bay.

If the park is completed, Lippert said DND is liable for any explosives accidents. The parcel of land is owned by the province, but leased by the City of Vernon.