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What lies beneath

by Jason Winders, MES'10

Bombs have not fallen on Laos in nearly 40 years. But with tens of millions of unexploded ordinances lying in wait across the country, the echoes of those blasts still resonate to this day.

Michael Laneville, BSc’00 (Honours Geophysics), works to silence even just a few of them.

The London native was a lover of geography throughout high school, and he carried that passion to Western. His twin brother, Patrick, BESc.’00, enrolled at the same time, both following their sister, Monique, BA’96, to the university.

Once here, and unsure what required science class he wanted to take, a ‘fluky chance’ landed Laneville on Geophysics as he thumbed through the course calendar.

He was hooked from Day One.

“I thought, ‘Wow, I wish I had known about this earlier,’” Laneville said. “Nothing against geography, but geophysics felt a little more cutting-edged, and it tackled really interesting problems.”

Even burdened by a fever of 102 degrees one day, he still managed to make it to Earth Sciences professor Richard Secco’s first-year Geophysics class because he “simply couldn’t miss out on his continuation from the previous lecture. It was like reading a book you couldn’t put down.” After university, Laneville headed to South Korea, where he would teach English for a year, and then on to a four-month backpack across Southeast Asia.

It was in Laos when he first heard the stories.

“I had never really considered it before,” he said. “But different places I would go I would see different things – a centre making prosthetic limbs; a hiking trail with a sign saying there are unexploded bombs in the area, so stay on the path; homes in the countryside, where most houses are built on stilts for monsoon season, built instead on old, unexploded bombs.

“It was shocking to see.”

And then there were the people – men and women missing limbs simply because they were trying to farm their land, children because they played with a tempting tennis ball-sized cluster bomb. They were tragedies that would haunt Laneville. Laos – the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) – was the target of a ‘secret war’ by the United States during the Vietnam War. From 1964-73, more than a quarter billion bombs were dropped on the country.

That number equates to an unfathomable planeload of bombs every eight minutes for nine years.

A third of those bombs remain unexploded to this day; less than 1 per cent have been destroyed. Some are harmless, neutered by corrosion over time. Still others have become unstable, where only a small knock can detonate it. Estimates have more than 20,000 people killed or injured by these unexploded bombs since the end of the war. Hundreds continue to be today, approximately one person a day in Laos.

“I was wondering how they were lookingfor these things that were dropped from an airplane, got stuck in the ground and are now just waiting for someone to accidentally find them,” Laneville said. “I thought, definitely, geophysics must be able to help.”

With an optimism reserved only for those in their early 20s, Laneville headed to the capital and sought out those doing the work in the country. At the time, this was exclusive to the military. When Laneville offered his geophysics knowledge, nobody jumped. “I didn’t know if it was me really not getting it or if it was them not knowing what was out there,” he said. “Maybe these guys didn’t know what they didn’t know and didn’t understand geophysics.”

From that point on, he would dive into the subject, reading every academic paper and study on the topic. But he knew there were no jobs to be had, so Laneville went to work in mineral/oil/gas exploration.

But he promised himself he would return. A series of career steps over the next decade would help him do just that.

Today, Laneville, 36, is the principal geophysicist with Minerals and Metals Group (MMG), an Australian-based mining company, operating in Laos. He works with several hundred Lao staff and several expats to clear unexploded ordinances around Sepon, home of the country’s largest gold and copper mine.

The mine, which represents almost 10 per cent of Laos’ gross domestic product, is located along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in the heart of the bombing. Knowing this, the company made every effort to purge the area, but when two 500-pound bombs surfaced in a ‘cleared area’ during a mining operation, they pushed into more sophisticated means of finding unexploded ordinances.

With Laneville on board, the company now employs the most cutting-edge exploration of the area, using geophysics to map an accurate portrait of what lies below the region. “It’s better than walking around with something that goes ‘beep’ when you walk over it,” Laneville said with a rare laugh.

Last year alone, his team discovered more than 4,000 bombs. While the work directly supports mining activities, Laneville has pushed his company to share its learnings with other organizations clearing bombs in the country. It’s a partnership Laneville considers a duty for his company, and a calling for himself.

“What we have learned is trickling down to people who wouldn’t be able to afford it,” Laneville said. “We’re now working on other ways to leverage the skills at our company and spread them out to these other organizations that don’t have the money for it.”

Laneville also puts his efforts into academic research, exploring best practices, as well as partnering with organizations like COPE, a provider of prosthetic limbs in Laos (, on fundraising. All in all, Laneville is a man who finds himself where he wants to be, doing what he set out to do years ago. And so, with so much work done, but so much left to do, what’s next?

“To be honest, I’m still looking for ways to use my skills to bring benefit to the average person here in Laos and elsewhere who, by no fault of their own, have to deal with unexploded ordinances (UXO). We’ve taught a lot of Lao nationals how to use geophysical equipment, but with no courses on geophysics in Lao universities, there is a significant skill gap,” Laneville said. “I’m hoping over the next few years to become more involved in introducing geophysical methods for UXO investigations to a wider range of Lao institutions and NGOs and bridging the skill gap. This will ultimately bring the work quality in line with international standards and make Lao nationals less reliant on foreign expertise.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2013 edition of Alumni Gazette
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