AUGUSTA – A Canadian base where thousands of Maine soldiers trained has blocked off several sections over worries that Agent Orange and other chemicals, sprayed there in the late 1960s, may be making soldiers sick.
However, Maj. Gen. Bill Libby, the head of the Maine Army National Guard, said Thursday his soldiers may return to the New Brunswick base this summer.
“I’m optimistic that we are going to be continuing training at (Canadian Forces Base) Gagetown,” Libby said, following a morning meeting with officers from the province.
He’s still trying to get assurances that the base is safe, though. Until that happens, Libby said no Maine soldiers would return.
He is encouraging guard members who think they may be sick as a result of their training in New Brunswick to file a claim with the Veterans Administration, he said.
“We’re gathering information,” Libby said.”You owe it to yourself and your family to file.”
About 20 former Maine soldiers have already filed claims, saying their diabetes, cancer or other problems were caused by their service at Gagetown.
As yet, none of the claims has been accepted, said Dale Demers, the VA’s regional office director at Togus.
Problems at Gagetown date back to seven days in June 1966 and June 1967, when the Canadian military tested several American-made defoliants such as Agent Orange on patches of forest with heavy undergrowth.
It was a small test, said Col. K. R. Jestin, who commands the Gagetown base.
Relatively little of the toxins was sprayed, Jestin said. For instance, 124 gallons of Agent Orange were used, he said. Similar amounts of other chemicals, including Agent White and Agent Purple, were also sprayed.
It was done over an 80-acre site, small by Gagetown standards. The base covers an estimated 276,000 acres, an area larger than Maine’s Baxter State Park.
In 1971, four years after the spraying concluded, members of the Maine Army National Guard began training at the base.
Maine units have gone there every year since. The total number of soldiers is in the thousands, Libby said.
National Guard units from several other states, including Vermont, have also used Gagetown as a training site, Jestin said.
Maine soldiers were at Gagetown last summer, when news of the spraying broke in the Canadian press. The widow of a New Brunswick soldier went public after her government linked the chemical spraying to her late husband’s illness.
Libby called the news “a revelation.”
“Clearly, our government knew of the spraying in 1966 and 1967,” Libby said. He didn’t. “It surprises me that we could learn in 2005 that this has occurred.”
Last fall, the Canadian government embarked on a widespread environmental testing program of the base, checking the soil in 1,200 locations.
Jestin and the Canadian military’s Atlantic area land force commander, Gen. Rick Parsons, shared the preliminary results with Libby and other Maine officials on Thursday.
Levels of dioxin, the toxic remnant of Agent Orange, and related chemicals were found to be safe at 99 percent of the base, according to Canadian standards. Most of the remaining 1 percent of the base showed levels that were only marginally unsafe, Jestin said.
The contaminated areas, totaling less than 6 square miles, have been blocked off. The levels of contamination were particularly high at only one site, Jestin said.
Libby said his staff is investigating how Canadian safety levels compare to U.S. standards. They are also trying to determine which parts of the Gagetown base were occupied by Maine units over the years.
It’s unknown whether Maine soldiers worked in the contaminated areas, Libby said
“There’s a lot we don’t know,” he said. “We’re trying to find out more as fast as we can.”