Far up in the frozen north – across the top of Canada along the seventieth parallel from the Arctic coastline of the Yukon Territory to the barren rocks of Baffin Island – there’s a chain of air-raid early warning stations. They were built in the 50s as a defence against the Soviet Union and abandoned in the 1990s once that threat dissipated.
A legacy of the Cold War, the Canadian Defence Early Warning (DEW line) provided for early detection of military approaches over the North Pole if ever the Soviets decided to attack the United States.
Now, over 50 years later, with advances in radar surveillance technology, and a more imminent threat of terror attacks against the American heartland looming, the DEW line facilities stand alone and unused on the remote Arctic tundra. In total, 63 radar bases were built, 42 of them in Canada attracting over 25,000 employees until the Americans withdrew in 1990.
Today there is more concern about environmental contamination at the sites than about first-strike Russian long-range bombers. At the forefront of debate is what to do with harmful PCB-laden paint used at all of the DEW Line sites.
“PCBs made the paint more durable,” explains Darren Whin, the head of pollution abatement for Environment Canada in Whitehorse. “PCBs were wonder chemicals when they were used in the 1950s because they were so extremely stable. But that is also why they are so hazardous. They persist in the natural environment for such a long time.”
Since PCB is a regulated substance, Environment Canada is responsible for deciding how it must be handled in the clean-up. If the paint is classified as a PCB waste, any materials coated with the substance may need to be taken by barge to a hazardous waste facility in the south.
The cheaper alternative is to bury the building materials, paint and all, at a hazardous waste landfill in the arctic. “We don’t know yet whether demolition materials with this paint will be permitted to be landfilled,” explains Whin. “Deciding this matter will be difficult as it has implications for other sites in Canada as well.”
The problem along the line is an example of what human activity, left unchecked, can do to harm the environment. In December 1954, many thousands of people with countless skills were recruited, transported to the polar regions, housed, fed and supplied with tools, machines and materials in order to construct physical facilities – buildings, roads, tanks, towers, antennas, airfields and hangars – at some of the most isolated spots in North America.
Military and civilian airlifts, huge sealifts during the short summers, cat trains and barges distributed vast cargoes the length of the Line to build the settlements needed at each site. In all, 460,000 tons of material were moved from the U.S. and Canada to the Arctic by air, land and water, including PCBs used in paints.
In Canada, PCBs were added to paints until the mid-1970s because they enhanced resilience and increased resistance to fire, but the use of the substance was banned in 1979 after concerns of it being a cancer-causing agent and an environmental hazard surfaced. Because of the PCBs, the clean-up process also had to comply with the PCB regulations that require transporting the contaminated debris to a hazardous waste facility in Alberta for incineration.
The PCB issues have been unresolved since the 1990s when the U.S. military handed over complete custody of the sites to the Canadian government. Any remaining U.S. military personnel moved back home, and Canada was left with the abandoned sites and the garbage that came with it.
A controversy also developed between the United States and Canada over the cleanup of deactivated Canadian DEW Line sites. The stations had produced large amounts of hazardous waste that had been abandoned in the high Arctic. Especially damaging were the large quantities of PCBs. While the United States insisted that it was Canada’s responsibility to cleanup the sites they had managed, the Canadian government disagreed. In 1996 an agreement was reached that saw the U.S contribute $100 million to the estimated $300 million cleanup effort.
The DEW Line Cleanup Project, initiated by the federal government, involves the cleanup of 21 radar sites scattered in remote locations, and stretching across 5000 kilometres of the Canadian Arctic. To date, four of the 21 sites have been cleaned up and work is underway at seven others. The $320 million project is scheduled to be completed by 2010. After completion, a monitoring program will be put in place to ensure continued environmental protection.