By Keith Leslie – 15 hours ago
TORONTO — Aboriginal leaders welcomed an agreement announced Monday between the federal and Ontario governments to clean up 16 abandoned Cold War radar sites in northern Ontario at an estimated cost of more than $100 million.
The province will provide $73 million to clean up toxic materials at all 16 radar sites along the coasts of James Bay and Hudson Bay, while Ottawa will contribute up to $30 million to help clean up 11 of the most highly contaminated stations.
The radar stations, part of the old Mid-Canada warning line, are contaminated with PCBs, hydrocarbons, mercury and asbestos, and must be cleaned up to restore the ecological balance in the area, said Natural Resources Minister Donna Cansfield.
"There's such an extraordinary sadness when you see what's been left on the land, the oil drums that are deteriorating, equipment behind the large radar sites," Cansfield said.
"I can't think of another word other than extraordinary sadness when you see what was left and how it's been allowed to deteriorate."
Local First Nations people will be hired to help with the six-year project to eliminate the pollutants at the radar stations, which haven't been used since the mid-1960s.
However, Chief George Hunter of Weenusk First Nation said his concern has always been the health of his people, not just economic opportunities, and he wants to know exactly what people have been exposed to from the abandoned radar sites.
"We have a lot of health problems, a lot of our people are dying with lung diseases and cancers," Hunter said.
"The military, when they left the bases, never gave us any warning what the contaminants were."
Hunter said the agreement marked a major change by treating First Nations as equals, noting aboriginal workers who helped build the radar stations were not allowed to share the lunchroom or use the facilities used by other workers.
"We were not considered human beings until 1957, so it was very hard to work with the Department of National Defence equally," he said.
"Even though we were part of the hard labour there, we had to go into the bush to make our tea and stuff like that."
Grand Chief Stan Louttit of the Mushkegowuk Council said the environmental pollution around the radar sites has been allowed to go unchecked for far too long.
"It's been a long struggle, a long, long time," Louttit said. "Finally it's going to happen and we're going to clean up the land so the birds and the animals and everybody else will enjoy it, as it should be."
Hunter said his First Nation will take in a doctor this summer to help determine exactly what pollutants are at the radar sites and what health risks they may pose, and he also wants the government to look at other abandoned military dump sites in the North.
"I think there are a lot of things that we have not thoroughly identified yet, disposal sites that we don't know about," he said.
"We need to dig up what's under the tundra."
Cansfield said the province realizes there may be other sites yet to be uncovered in the Far North that will also need to be cleaned up.
"You heard Chief Hunter talk about sites where things are buried that we may not know about," she said.
"They know and understand the land, so it's absolutely paramount that we work with them, and that's the commitment to do that."
Jun 22, 2009 - Tanya Talaga - Queen's Park Bureau
It has taken nearly 40 years, but 16 abandoned radar sites that were part of the Mid-Canada line set up to monitor the Soviet air threat during the Cold War will be cleaned up over the next six years at a cost of $103 million, the Ontario government says.
The sites were built in the mid-1950s but abandoned by the Canadian military in the 1960s. The military left behind garbage including fuel tanks, radar towers and toxic materials that First Nations people have wanted removed for decades, said Ontario's Natural Resources Minister Donna Cansfield at a news conference today.
"First Nations communities have long been concerned about the possibility of the contaminants affecting the environment. It is unfortunate facilities built to repel one type of threat ended up posing a very different threat themselves," Cansfield said. "It must be done. It has been left too long."
Eight of the 16 sites are in Polar Bear Provincial Park, the largest, most northern park in Ontario. The federal government will contribute $30 million to assist the clean-up at 11 sites that are highly contaminated. The remaining $73 million comes from Ontario. Cansfield said the clean-up effort will provide jobs and opportunities for First Nations people. Some sites are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), hydrocarbons, mercury and asbestos.
"There is an extraordinary sadness when you see what has been left on the land. The oil drums, equipment," Cansfield said. "Millions of birds every year migrate to the north for nesting. It is absolutely critical we return the ecosystem. The only way we can do that is by working with First Nations."
Chief George Hunter of Weenusk First Nation says the federal government abandoned the bases and put the health of his people at risk. "We have a lot of health problems. We have been living there for a long time. A lot of our people are dying of lung diseases and cancers. When the military left the base they never gave us any warning what the contaminants were," Hunter said. "People were salvaging stuff unknowingly."
Weenusk is found on the southern shore of Hudson Bay. Shorebirds are declining in numbers or are gone from the area, said Hunter. The military left an entire community behind - an airport, a hospital, communication towers, sleeping barracks.
"There are disposal sites we do not know about," said Hunter. "We used to have a lot of helicopters that crashed, got wrecked; they are just buried there. We need to dig up what is under the tundra."
While northern First Nations leaders welcome the move, New Democratic Party MPP Howard Hampton (Kenora-Rainy River) said this announcement is just "spin" and ignores real issues in the north such as the public health crisis of swine flu.