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The DEW Line’s toxic legacy

The Story


The Distant Early Warning Line, once a proud symbol of North America's defensive readiness, has been abandoned. The 63 Arctic radar stations stand silent, screens darkened, dishes immobile. Now they themselves are a threat. Long departed soldiers from two nations left behind an environmental nightmare: rotting vehicles in the lakes, rows of containers full of hazardous materials, dumps leaking arsenic and PCBs. CBC Radio looks at the controversial plan to undo the DEW Line. 

Medium: Radio
Program: This Morning Sunday
Broadcast Date: Oct. 12, 1997
Guest(s): Tony Downs
Host: Avril Benoît
Reporter: Timothy Sawa
Duration: 16:17

Did You know?


• The DEW Line stations were operated by both Canadian and American armed forces personnel, but as the system was shut down the Americans withdrew. In 1993 the United States handed all DEW Line operations over to Canada. A controversy soon erupted over which nation should pay for the cleanup of the hazardous wastes produced by the DEW Line stations.

• The Americans had funded the construction of the bases, but were not obligated to clean them up. Canada approached the Americans to foot the cleanup bill, but the Americans wanted to avoid setting a costly precedent that could see them cleaning up former military bases around the world.
• In 1996 the Americans agreed to contribute $100 million towards the $300-million project, in the form of a credit to Canada for the purchase of U.S. military materiel.

• In July 1998, the federal government reached a $230-million agreement with Inuit leaders in Nunavut for the cleanup of 15 DEW Line stations. The deal called for non-hazardous waste to be removed to special landfill sites, while toxic soil was to be excavated and shipped out of the Arctic. Between 65 and 80 per cent of the people employed through the project had to be Inuit, creating an estimated 900 Inuit jobs.

• A key problem was determining how to deal with the large quantity of materials contaminated with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl). An estimated 30 tonnes of PCBs were used in radio equipment, generators and paint. PCB-laden paint, considered to be extremely durable, had been applied to almost all wood used in the stations.

• The initial plan was for PCB-contaminated materials to be shipped to the high-intensity incinerator at Swan Hills, Alta. But this would be extraordinarily expensive. In 2001, defence department spokesman Pete Quinn said that the materials had been put into steel containers and stored under rules laid out by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.


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