Various toxic contaminants will be cleaned up from an abandoned American military site north of Clyde River, Nunavut, as part of a multi-year cleanup project by the Canadian government and local Inuit.

The U.S. Coast Guard ran Cape Christian as a long-range navigational aide site from 1954 until 1974. The site supported ships and aircraft operating out of Thule, Greenland.

Thirty-five years after Cape Christian closed, the Canadian government is spending $5.1 million this year to start cleaning up debris and contaminants — including asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — from the site.

"They have already begun dismantling some buildings, removing some of the contaminated paint from the buildings, which will be shipped south. As well, as there's hydrocarbon-contaminated soil, which will be containerized," said Natalie Plato, director of the Indian and Northern Affairs department's contaminated sites program in Nunavut.

PCB-laden paints a priority

Plato added that physical debris such as material from buildings will be deposited in an on-site landfill.

A major concern for the department is that parts of the site have paints containing PCBs, a known organic pollutant that has since been banned.

Plato said if the paints were ever to burn, the PCBs in them would be converted to toxic dioxins and furans, which would pose a potential health hazard when they're spread through the air and deposited back onto the land.

"So if these sites ever caught fire, they would make a much worse hazard," she said.

The multi-year cleanup at Cape Christian was supposed to start last year, but Plato said the project was delayed until this summer.

Residents 'glad that it's being done'

Currently, 24 people are working on the cleanup, most of whom come from Clyde River. More workers will come on board later this summer.

The work is being overseen by Qikiqtaluk Corp., an Inuit-owned company.

In Clyde River, assistant administrative officer Steven Aipellee described Cape Christian as a local eyesore.

"Most people are glad that it's being done now," he said. "We kept hearing that it would be cleaned up, and now finally this year they're doing that."

Aipellee said the former military site is a good place to camp in the spring, adding that it's close to the floe edge for narwhal hunting.

People in Clyde River also go to Cape Christian to collect seaweed in the fall, he added.

The Indian and Northern Affairs Department is spending a total $20 million to monitor or remediate a number of contaminated sites across Nunavut this year, including Cape Christian.

There are 21 contaminated sites — mainly Distant Early Warning (DEW) sites and other former military facilities — across Canada's North, with 16 of them based in Nunavut.

The deaprtment is also evaluating old exploration camps and construction sites in Nunavut's Kivalliq region that may be contaminated.

Officials have conducted 17 assessments this year to determine if those sites need to be cleaned up. Results from those assessments are expected to be made available this fall.

With files by Patricia Bell