Canada’s government is approaching the end of its near-decade-long remediation of remote northern radar sites abandoned during the Cold War era.
The $575-million clean-up began in 1996 after Ottawa announced it would remediate 21 of the U.S. military’s biggest Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line sites.
After nine years of remediating lead and polychlorinated biphenyl-filled (PCB) soil, removing old asbestos-filled infrastructure, and creating new waste areas, Nunavut crews have nearly finished the cleanup of the Cape Dyer DEW Line on Baffin Island, the most demanding site of them all.
The U.S. contributed about $92 million towards the Cape Dyer clean-up.
Cape Dyer was built by the U.S. in the late 1950s for airspace surveillance, but abandoned just a few years later when the technology became outdated.
The local Qikiqtani Inuit helped the U.S. Air Force build the 23,288-acre defence site. Now, the very same community, some of whom joined the clean-up crew of about 100 people, has more or less finished the exhausting process of tearing everything down.
“People on the site had their grandfathers working there in the 1950s,” Qikiqtaaluk Environmental CEO Harry Flaherty told EcoLog News. “So there’s pride there, pride in removing the contaminants, and pride in having this space clean for future generations,” he added.
Over the project’s final years, Qikiqtaaluk Environmental was one of the main contractors involved in the Cape Dyer remediation project, although it sub-contracted some of the work to companies such as Sanexen Environmental Services, a Quebec-based remediator.
Defence Construction Canada (DCC) awarded Qikiqtaaluk Environmental a contract worth nearly $15 million to perform quality assurance inspections at the site.
One of the more remarkable facts about the cleanup is that northern crews could only remediate for about two months each year. Even in June, Flaherty says, crews could find themselves removing 10-metre-high snowbanks just to get a ground sample. That limitation meant the company would use a shiftwork system that allowed crews to work 24 hours each day.
The Cape Dyer site was hundreds of kilometres from nearby towns and villages.
The project scope for Cape Dyer included the southern transport and disposal of more than 14,000 megatonnes of hazardous materials, contaminated soils and PCB waste collected from the environmental clean-up of former DEW Line Sites within the Nunavut Settlement Area.
Qikiqtaaluk Environmental estimates there were some 6,500 metric tonnes of contaminated soil and demolition debris to move off-site. Some of the soil is being placed in nearby soil farms where it will be treated to allow hydrocarbons to evaporate.
Everything from steel drums to warehouses, garages, living quarters, antennas and water tanks littered the Cape Dyer area, and needed to be broken down into thousands upon thousands of trash bags.
Scores of huge custom contaminant bags — the final ones — are now available for pickup. There have been some 5,000 bags filled over the course of the clean-up. Some of the waste had to be transported across water, including equipment containing mercury and other heavy metals, or petroleum products and battery fluid that had been spilled on the ground, or walls formerly covered with paints containing PCBs and lead.
Instead of safeguarding PCBs in fuel barrels, often times the U.S. military would simply unload the contaminants onto the landscape.
“They would just pour everything out,” says Flaherty. “They had no respect for the landscape. And it wasn’t their land.”
Of course, it being the late 1950s, environmental standards were worlds away from where they are in 2013.
“You couldn’t get away with that nowadays,” adds Flaherty.
While frigid temperatures added to the Cape Dyer mess in the first place, temperatures also impaired the ability of clean-up crews to work effectively. Qikiqtaaluk Environmental says that climate change created a situation that delayed progress on the remediation. Plans to bury some less-hazardous materials in the permafrost were met with the effects of atypical temperatures, meaning crews had to dig deeper to find frozen soil.
The crew built an 8,000-square-metre landfill near Cape Dyer to help expedite the clean-up. There are a total of 11 landfills from the massive clean-up.
One of the last DEW lines in the area, DYE-Main, is expected to be remediated by summer 2014.
The Cape Dyer site remediation is expected to be fully completed by late October 2013.