DEW Line Doo-Doo

by Iram Khan

Toutoyaktuk NWT DEWsite
BAR-3 showing DEW Line site and the new Short Range Radar tower, Toutoyaktuk NWT
photo courtesy: Larry S. Wilson: The DEW LINE Sites in Canada, Alaska & Greenland

d uring my short stay in northern British Columbia this spring, I was exposed to issues and news that would rarely have reached the radio and television stations of the "south." One of these issues was the clean up of the Distant Early Warning line (DEW line) radar bases. I had never heard of these sites before, let alone the issues surrounding them. The closest that this issue got to major Canadian politics was when it received a short mention in the first nationally televised debate for the federal election campaign of 1997. At the time PC Leader Jean Charest referred to the $100-million DEW Line cleanup deal with the U.S. as an example of the Liberal's disinterest. Well, because of this "disinterest" Canadian taxpayers will now have to pay for the majority of the clean-up through their wallets as well as through the environment.

the cost of Department of National Defence's cleanup efforts will amount to $300 million dollars

      The DEW line, which ran roughly along the 70th parallel, was built as a reaction to the fear of a northern attack by the Soviet Union during the Cold War under the North American Aerospace Defense Command. In total about 63 radar bases were built, 42 of them in Canada 1. These bases were expected to provide an advanced warning if ever the Soviets decided to attack North America, or more accurately the United States.

      In 1952, the first DEW line station was constructed at Barter Island. This was the beginning of a major growth period for the Canadian north. Along with the stations themselves, dozens of camps and airstrips had to be built and maintained. Hundreds of Canadians including Inuit families were employed for the massive project. The Western Electric Company was awarded the $500,000,000 contract and the subcontractors included Northern Construction Ltd., James W. Stewart Ltd of Vancouver, and the Foundation Company of Canada.2 Even though Canadian companies and manpower were contracted, the United States Air Force funded and had ultimate control of all the stations.

      The DEW line remained in operation for the next thirty years, but technology and improved relations with Soviet Union gradually made them obsolete. Beginning in 1962, around half of the sites in Canada were decommissioned. Responsibilities for the management and the maintenance of all of the Canadian sites were split (21 sites each) between the Canadian Department of Defense and the Department of Northern and Indian Affairs. In 1985, Prime Minister Mulroney and President Reagan signed the North American Air Defense Modernization agreement, which resulted in the upgrading of the remaining DEW line. Many of the sites were introduced to new technology. In total, five sites were decommissioned and the other sixteen under the Department of Defense were converted into the new North Warning System sites.3

A typical East Coast North Warning System LONG RANGE RADAR SITE in northern Labrador LAB-2, Saglek
northern Labrador DEWsite photo courtesy: Larry S. Wilson: The NORTH WARNING SYSTEM

      However, the Cold War had to end some time. In 1990 the U.S. military handed over complete custody of the sites to the Canadian government. Any remaining U.S. military personnel moved back home, and Canada was left with the abandoned sites and the garbage that came with it. An emotional and exhausting debate began on who should be responsible for cleaning up the mess, especially after concerns that the PCBs in the paint was harming the environment, and consequently the peoples, of Arctic Canada. In Canada, PCBs were added to paints until the mid-1970s because they enhanced resilience and increased resistance to fire, but the use of the substance was banned in 1979 after concerns of it being a cancer-causing agent and an environmental hazard surfaced.4 Because of the PCBs, the clean-up process also had to comply with the PCB regulations that requires transporting the contaminated debris to a hazardous waste facility in Alberta for incineration.

      In June 1996, a "full and final settlement" was made with the United States to provide $100 million (US) over 10 years for the cleanup of the 21, plus one in Goose Bay, Nfld., and another in Haines Junction, Yukon.5 The only stipulation to this deal was that the payment was to be made in the form of military hardware selected by Canada. This stipulation was quite shocking to many since the cost of Department of National Defense's cleanup efforts will amount to $300 million dollars.6 As Kevin O'Reilly, research director with Canadian Arctic Resources Committee stated, "Canada negotiated a bad deal -- how could the government actually agree with it?...They couldn't even get $100 million in cash to use for the clean-up...If the military brought in this stuff, they should bring it out." Despite the protest, this settlement has remained "full and final" to this day even though the DEW line project was U.S initiated and controlled.

      The Department of National Defense has ran into many problems relating to the organization of the clean-up. To eliminate the $50 million additional cost of transporting and incinerating the PCB debris, the Department of National Defense approached Environment Canada in January 1997 to challenge the scientific basis of the landfill ban of PCBs and make an exception for the PCBs at the DEW line sites. After extensive testing, Environment Canada refused the Department of National Defense's request concluding the material was too toxic to bury.

      Finally, progress was made in September 1998 when National Defense Minister Art Eggleton signed an agreement on the environmental provisions for a cleanup of 15 Distant Early Warning Line radar sites that are located in Nunavut. A complete inventory and environmental assessment of each site and a ten year schedule was agreed to be made. However, they haven't been able to come up with an agreement on the method of disposing the PCBs yet.

      After years of negotiating, the road to cleaning up the environmental mess at least has begun. The employment rate is also getting a boost; many people, especially the Inuit, are getting training and jobs that they have been desperately waiting for. "There's not much work around here so we want to find a way to get the younger generation involved in one way or another," said Harry Flaherty, assistant superintendent of the Qikiqtaaluk Corporation, who was contracted to work on the sites in Nunavut.7 But, we cannot lose sight of the other side of the issue. Kevin O'Reilly, research director with Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, sums it all up with the following statement:

"Because of this lousy deal, Canadian taxpayers have with the U.S., they are left having to pay. But it's the kind of agreement that you might expect when military groups from two countries who don't care about the environment get together."8

1 DEW Line forever? Inuit break off talks about clean-up funding, by Jennifer Pritchett, Northern News Services, April 21, 1997

2 Annex F Post World War II Radar, From the Communications and Electronics Branch of the Ministry of Defense Web site

Also, it is interesting to note that CTV recently reported that the cash settlement of the Nisga'a deal was also $500,000,000.

3 DEW Line forever? Inuit break off talks about clean-up funding, by Jennifer Pritchett, Northern News Services, April 21, 1997

4Ottawa: No decision yet on PCB burial in the North, by Dwane Wilkin, Nunatsiaq News, September 17, 1998

5 DEW Line talks hoped for this week: Cleaning up Nunavut sites could cost $248 million, but who will pay the bill? by Nancy Gardiner Northern News Services, June 16, 1997

6 A decade of cleaning Progress being made on contaminated DEW Line sites, but project has years to run by Derek Neary Northern News Services, June 1, 1998

7 Training mandate met Resolution Island provides opportunity, by Kerry McCluskey, Northern News Services, October 5, 1998

8 DEW Line forever? Inuit break off talks about clean-up funding by Jennifer Pritchett Northern News Services, April 21, 1997

related links for further reading

The Early Warning Connection (Cold War Era)
"This site is our attempt to make it easier for everyone interested in Early Warning history to find the resources that are available. We hope, as the word gets around, that more and more of you will bookmark these pages and use them as your Early Warning home on the Internet."

Annex F - Post World War II Radar in Defence of Canada
From the Communications and Electronics Branch of the Ministry of Defense Web site.

DEW Line dome enroute to Inuvik
A picture of a DEW line dome that has been renovated for the future.

Ed Picco
Ed Picco, M.L.A. of Iqaluit, N.W.T.'s appeal to parliament on the $100 milliion agreement with the U.S.

The NWT Archives Photographic Database
Do a search on "DEW line" and view 161 images of DEW line sites.

Government of the Northwest Territories Search
Do a search on "DEW line" and read the transcripts of the bickering that went on concerning the DEW line in the Northwest Territories government.

Qikiqtaaluk Corporation
One of the companies that has been contracted to clean up the DEW line sites.

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