Ministry recognized for Polar Bear Provincial Park radar site cleanup

A massive cleanup of long-abandoned, Cold War-era military sites in Northern Ontario's Polar Bear Provincial Park has earned the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) an award from the province's environment commissioner.

Ministry earns award for cleanup of abandoned radar sites, hazardous waste at Polar Bear Provincial Park

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has received an award from Ontario's Environment Commissioner for its work to clean up abandoned, cold war-era radar sites in Polar Bear Provincial Park. (Ontario Parks/MNRF)

A massive cleanup of long-abandoned, Cold War-era military sites in Northern Ontario's Polar Bear Provincial Park has earned the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) an award from the province's environment commissioner.

In addition to the wildlife and wetlands, Polar Bear Provincial Park, located along the coasts of James Bay and Hudson Bay in Ontario's far north, is home to abandoned military sites, which were constructed in the 1950s as part of the Mid Canada Line, a line of radar stations designed to provide early warning if an attack on North America was to take place.

"In fact, there were eight different military sites built in the park, among many others that were built across Ontario," said Dianne Saxe, Ontario's Environment Commissioner. "And in the 1960s, the federal government and the U.S. government just walked away, leaving everything there — the contamination, the oil, the mercury, the asbestos, the fuel, the chemicals, all the toxins, they just left it all there."

Polar Bear Provincial Park is home to the third-largest wetland on earth, as well as beluga whales, seals, caribou and, of course, polar bears. (Ontario Parks/MNRF)

But Polar Bear Provincial Park, Saxe said, is a vital provincial ecological site.

The park, she said, "has the third-largest wetland in the world. It's of international significance for migratory birds, it has many other very important aspects of ecological integrity for the province as a whole."

The abandoned military sites, and accompanying waste, had a significant environmental impact, Saxe said. Thousands and thousands of rusting metal drums were scattered around the landscape, for example.

And while Saxe said most of those drums were empty, she noted it's impossible to know if they were empty when they were left there, or the contents had leaked out over the last 50 years.

And the affected area of the park is extensively used by Indigenous people living in nearby communities such as Attawapiskat, Fort Severn and Peawanuk​.

However, things have changed in Polar Bear Provincial Park, which was the site of an unprecedented environmental cleanup designed to address the issues resulting from the abandonment of the military sites, Saxe said.

'A real achievement'

"This was an effort that took about 15 years," she said. 'It's a more than $80 million cleanup, and to come up with that amount of resources on top of everything else that the ministry was doing in times of, basically, continuous cutback, was a real achievement."

The MNRF worked with the federal government and Indigenous communities to clean the site up, Saxe said.

"To plan it, to organize, to do the environmental assessment, to get the money, to keep the money ... and the weather, and the ice roads becoming unreliable, and polar bears sniffing around, they had all kinds of obstacles," she said. "And you had to take the material so far away — there's nowhere local up there that can safely handle mercury and PCBs and toxic soil."

"They did a tremendous job."

Polar Bear Provincial Park is home to a variety of wildlife. (Ontario Parks/MNRF)

Today, the area looks "gorgeous," Saxe said, with most of the derelict buildings having been torn down, and the area re-seeded.

"A lot of attention was paid to restoring the ecological integrity of the area," she said. "The one thing they did leave was the four big radar screens, because the First Nations find them very useful as landmarks, and, it turns out, that there are endangered barn swallows who've decided that they're good nesting sites."

On Thursday, representatives of the MNRF received an Environmental Commissioner of Ontario Recognition Award at a ceremony at Queen's Park.

The awards specifically target government ministry staff and their work on initiatives that improve Ontario's environment.

"I spend a lot of time reproaching and wagging my finger at the government for various things they do wrong," Saxe said. "But it's equally important to recognize people when they do things well."

"When individuals use their ingenuity and their creativity and their persistence and their determination to do something that they weren't required to do, that nobody made them do, that they took the initiative to do the right thing, we all should stand up and cheer to have civil servants like that."