Nfld. & Labrador

Labrador military site cleanup talks drag on between feds and N.L. government

Ottawa is moving the goalposts downfield on a potential deal to remediate contaminated former U.S. military sites in Labrador, provincial government briefing notes suggest.

Mid-Canada Line locations date back to the Cold War

A drum with a faded 'Danger' sign is pictured at the former North West Point military site in this 1996 file photo. North West Point is roughly six kilometres southeast of the town of Sheshatshiu in Labrador. As of this summer, the Newfoundland and Labrador government estimated more than $3 million in contaminated site liabilities there. (CBC)

Ottawa is moving the goalposts downfield on a potential deal to remediate contaminated former U.S. military sites in Labrador, with Department of National Defence officials requiring more information and narrowing the definition of what work may be eligible for funding.

That's according to provincial government briefing notes obtained by CBC News through access to information.

"The scope of work that may be eligible for cost sharing under the agreement has changed substantially over time," a July 24 Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment (MAE) information note advises.

"Initially, it was understood through discussions with DND that any work related to the abatement, removal and remediation of environmental contaminants or hazardous materials that were attributable to former military operations at eligible sites may be considered for 50-50 cost sharing."

But that position has shifted, according to the provincial briefing materials.

"DND advised that their current position is that only specific eligible costs would be considered and that those could be limited to impacted media (soil, air, or water). There are components of clean-up work at eligible sites that may not be eligible for cost sharing, including the removal of infrastructure and debris, even if they contain hazardous materials."

Provincial officials wrote that both the level of information requested by DND to secure a cost-shared agreement and the timelines have increased or changed "significantly over time."

DND 'committed to environmental stewardship'

The Department of National Defence did not directly address those concerns in an emailed statement to CBC News.

But DND stressed it is "committed to environmental stewardship and sustainable development and we will continue taking concrete and significant steps to address risks posed by historically contaminated areas," spokesperson Daniel Le Bouthillier wrote.

The Mid-Canada Line sites were transferred from the Department of National Defence to their respective provinces by 1970, after technology rendered them obsolete.

The new Department of National Defence headquarters is located in western Ottawa. (CBC)

Le Bouthillier noted that past environmental practices, while considered acceptable at the time, have left "considerable contamination" at the sites.

"We are currently conducting site assessments to determine which sites are eligible for remediation. Local Innu and Inuit groups have been engaged in the design of assessment projects completed to date."

Le Bouthillier added, "As discussions with the province continue, we don't have further detail to provide at this time."

Ottawa gave millions in the 1980s

In 1986, the province got $5.5 million from Ottawa to remediate 13 former U.S. radar, communications or supply sites in Labrador, plus one in St. Anthony, near the tip of Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula.

That cash was spent mostly on "building and equipment removal and disposal" — work that was completed at 11 sites.

In addition to the initial $5.5 million dating back to the 1980s, more money has been spent by the province at some of the affected sites.

That includes $13 million in Hopedale, $3 million to "fully remediate" the site in St. Anthony, and $500,000 to start work at North West Point.

In total, $22 million has been spent on cleanup work over the years.

According to the province, the sites covered by the 1986 agreement where efforts are continuing to ensure they "meet current acceptable environmental standards" are:

  • Hopedale.
  • North West Point.
  • Cartwright.
  • Border Beacon.
  • Cape Harrison.
  • Cut Throat Island.
  • Spotted Island.
  • Cape Makkovik.
  • Wild Boar.
  • BOA Hunt Lake.                   
  • Harbour Lake.
  • St. Anthony.

According to the provincial briefing notes, talks began in 2016 on a potential 50-50 cost-shared agreement, similar to a deal the feds signed with the Ontario government.

The former U.S. military Mid-Canada Line radar site known as Border Beacon is pictured in a 1996 file image, top, and in a photo, below, from the Phase 3 environmental site assessment, which was completed in May and posted on the Newfoundland and Labrador government's website. Border Beacon is about 190 kilometres west of Hopedale in Labrador. (CBC)

The province delayed further work in Hopedale until federal funding became available. 

But the two sides have yet to reach a deal. Provincial and DND officials held a conference call in early July to discuss "the current status and next steps."

An earlier provincial briefing note — from June 2019 — outlined environmental liabilities, totalling more than $16 million at seven of those sites in Labrador.

Innu Nation 'regularly' asked about status of work

According to the July provincial briefing note, Innu Nation officials have "regularly been inquiring with MAE officials on when remediation work at the sites might begin."

Innu Nation officials did not make anyone available for an interview before deadline.

And no one at the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment is talking either.

The department instead sent an email saying the province "made a long-term commitment to the remediation of the former Mid-Canada Line Military Sites and continues to work toward ensuring that they meet current acceptable environmental standards."

According to the Defence Construction Canada website, the Mid-Canada Line's 98 stations across Canada were built in the 1950s to warn of incoming Soviet air threats.

Defence Construction Canada is a federal Crown corporation that worked on the cleanup of Mid-Canada Line radar sites in Ontario.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Rob Antle

CBC News

Rob Antle is producer for CBC's investigative unit in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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