DEW Line: Cleanup Of Cold War Arctic Defence Relic Gets More Money

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DEW LINE COLD WAR CANADA
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq has committed another $15 million to clean up two more sites from the DEW line, a radar system which once stretched across Canada's North to guard against attack. (Thinkstock) | Thinkstock

IQALUIT, Nunavut - The federal government has announced more money to clean up some of the remaining mess left by a Cold-War-era Arctic defence system, one of the largest environmental cleanups in Canadian history.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq has committed another $15 million to clean up two more sites on the Distant Early Warning line, the radar system which once stretched across Canada's North to guard against attack.

Those sites are the last two of the 21 being remediated by the Defence Department. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development is responsible for another 21 sites.

The Defence Department has budgeted a total of $575 million to clean up its sites. That doesn't include the cost for addressing those under the purview of Northern Development.

"It's like cleaning up a giant factory," David Eagles, the Defence Department's project manager, said Wednesday. "You've got accommodation buildings. You've got transmission towers. You've got fuel tanks...."

Just one site, Cape Dyer on the east coast of Baffin Island, is expected to yield thousands of containers of contaminants such as hydrocarbons, PCBs and heavy metals.

"It's phenomenal the amount of contaminated soil that's coming south," Eagles said.

The DEW line was established in the late 1950s along the Arctic coastline, roughly along the 69th parallel from northwestern Alaska to Iceland. It was built to warn against the possibility of a Soviet missile attack that never came — but its impact in the North was large and long-lasting nevertheless.

DEW line construction crews were one of the first and largest forays of southern institutions into the Arctic at a time when Inuit people were making the transition from life on the land into settled communities.

"It had a huge impact and it happened overnight," said Frank Tester, a University of British Columbia sociologist who studies social change in the Arctic.

The DEW line offered Inuit their first industrial-type jobs, introduced them to money for the first time and disrupted centuries-old patterns of family life. It accelerated their movement off the land.

It created public health problems as Inuit scavenged from DEW line sites and built shanty towns, which one federal health worker compared to the worst slums of India.

"Arctic urban slums appeared in large numbers overnight," Tester said.

While the stations provided services such as occasional medical care, they also brought with them problems such as substance abuse. Contact between Inuit and thousands of DEW line workers was discouraged to the point of separate dining halls for Inuit workers, said Tester.

Now, the DEW line is again a source of Inuit jobs. Work on Defence Department's last two sites has been contracted to an Inuit company and is expected to provide 130 short-term positions.

Part of the reason the cleanup has taken so long — work began in 1989 — is that local people wanted to make the most of the work available, said Eagles.

Aboriginal Affairs has cleaned up eight of its 21 sites. Six contracts totalling about $82 million have been awarded for the work.

The U.S. military, which was largely behind construction of the DEW line, put up US$77 million to tidying it up — believed to be the first time the country contributed to such an effort not on American soil.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton

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