A Distant Environmental Warning: Lesson learned from Canada's clean-up of the Distant Early Warning Line in the North

"EnCompass" - Alberta's Magazine on the Environment,
Volume 4, Number 3, Feb/March 2000

By Senator Douglas Roche, O.C.

On January 15, 2000 the Canadian Press reported that a fire burned out of control for three days at a military radar station on Victoria Island. Environmental specialists from the military have yet to determine whether any hazardous materials escaped. The fumes, according to the military did not affect residents of Coppermine, the nearest community. The station is part of a chain of 47 radar stations built by the Canadian and American governments in the 1950's.

In an arrangement struck at the onset of the Cold War, the chain of radar stations known as the Distant Early Warning Line was constructed across the Canadian North as a first line of defence against an attack from the Soviet Union. Today the Soviet Union no longer exists, the Cold War is purportedly over, and a new higher-tech system using only half the radar sites in the North and none of the manpower has replaced the DEW Line. What does remain is an ecological mess: a collection of 21 abandoned sites of rusting military equipment, human and industrial waste, debris, and chemical contamination.

Canada had asked the U.S. for $500 million (Cdn) to clean up derelict fuel tanks and rusting barrels of PCB's at the facilities, as well as heavy metal contamination of a deserted U.S. naval base in the waters of Argentia Bay in Newfoundland. The two governments did reach a deal in 1996 that would have seen the U.S. pay Canada about $100 million (U.S.) for the clean-up over ten years. The money could only be used, however, in credit towards Canadian purchases of American military hardware.

Critics in Canada were unhappy with the deal, claiming it was woefully inadequate. Apparently, the U.S. Senate was unhappy with it as well, but for entirely different reasons. Its armed services committee voted in 1998 against paying any of the money that was agreed upon by both countries in October 1996. The Senate committee reneged on the deal claiming there was no legal responsibility for the U.S. Government to maintain the environmental quality of the allied territory it uses for strategic military purposes. What they really feared was setting a precedent that any payment would make the U.S. liable for the environmental damage its military bases cause across the world.

The DEW Line stations were constructed in an era when there was little or no appreciation from non-native Canadians of just how fragile the Arctic ecosystem actually is. Engineering and scientific studies have shown that chemicals, fuel spills, garbage, and even human waste from these former stations have contaminated areas up to 15 kilometres away from some former DEW sites. Chemicals have drained into water and infiltrated the food chain, and high levels of PCB's have been found in breast milk, and natives who consume large amounts of fish, caribou, and other area wildlife. We now know better right? Indeed, a precedent appears to have been set with the construction of the DEW Line and efforts to clean it up. But it certainly is not the precedent the U.S. Senate feared.

The expropriation of Nanoose Bay from British Columbia by the Federal Government is testimony that the Canadian government has learned little from the deleterious impact of American military bases. The expropriation is an evasion of federal legislative responsibility, circumventing the manner with which legislation and public policy should be conducted. This action by the Federal Government is irresponsible in its failure to consider the possibly harmful affects on the province's environment and its population. No environmental assessment has been undertaken as was promised in 1993.

The primary function of the site is to provide a torpedo test range for nuclear-powered and nuclear weapons-capable U.S. submarines. The soft seabed allows the navy to retrieve their expensive torpedoes undamaged. Canada's Department of National Defence acknowledges that in the event of an accident, residents in the area would suffer acute radiation sickness. The same DND report claimed emergency response preparations at Nanoose were "marginal or unsatisfactory."

The expropriation is an affront to Canada's values and its efforts to promote international law, peace and nuclear disarmament by possibly permitting nuclear weapons to be carried by foreign marine vessels into the Georgian Strait, an area the citizens of British Columbia have declared a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. The Canadian government seemingly accepts the U.S. policy to "neither confirm nor deny" whether their navy ships is carrying nuclear weapons. From 1990 to 1996, U.S. nuclear submarines visited the site 33 times, firing over 4,600 torpedoes. On three occasions Nanoose hosted a U.S. ballistic missile submarine capable of launching up to 192 nuclear warheads to targets practically anywhere on the globe. This tacitly condones the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons and is inconsistent with the views of 93 per cent of Canadians who, according to a 1998 Angus Reid poll, want a world free of nuclear weapons.

According to the government's Notice of Intention to Expropriate the seabed areas "are required...for purpose related to safety or security...and it would not be in the public interest to further indicate the purpose." It is difficult to imagine that there is any tangible communal good for the people of British Columbia to invite the targeting of Nanoose Bay by other nuclear weapons states.