The U.S. military built the DEW Line in the heady days of the late 1950s, a time when Cold War fears of Soviet bombers were matched by absolute faith in human ingenuity and technology. The megaproject was designed to secure the continent from a polar attack. But first, a “hostile” Arctic environment had to be “tamed.”
Its legacy marks the North to this day.
The DEW Line — the biggest military project in Arctic history — played a major role in the transformation that eventually tied the Inuit to a wage economy and sedentary lifestyle. It was a fast, traumatic shift that left deep social scars, including alcohol-related violence.
“It was hell,” says University of British Columbia professor Frank Tester, an authority on Inuit social history. “In all of recorded human history, there is no group of people who went from a hunting and gathering culture to a modern one in such a short period of time.”
The land was also disfigured. The military and civilian personnel who operated the radar sites treated the North like a vast garbage dump. Then, after so much effort and hubris, the DEW Line shrivelled as fast as it came.
In 1963 — five years after it was completed — intercontinental ballistic missiles and other new technologies made half of the 42 radar sites in Canada’s Arctic obsolete. They were abandoned and left to rust.
The rest were closed by 1993, replaced by fewer, mostly unmanned sites.
Those repurposed sites form today’s North Warning System. In 1996 the Department of National Defence (DND) launched one of North America’s biggest environmental clean-ups. That effort continues, largely unnoticed by Canadians.
The military is cleaning up — the feds call it remediating — the biggest 21 DEW sites and expects the last one, DYE-Main, to be completed next summer. The total clean-up bill is expected at $575 million — double the original estimate. About $92 million of it comes from the U.S. (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development has spent a further $82 million cleaning eight of the smaller 21 sites so far.)
“If I make a mess in your backyard, you’d want me to clean it up,” says Eagles, project manager for the DND remediation, referring to a clean-up protocol signed with Inuit leaders.
The extent of the mess at the DND sites is staggering. By the end of the clean-up, 35,000 cubic metres of waste, weighing more than 40 million kilograms — most of it soil contaminated with PCBs and lead — will have been shipped south for incineration or burial. That includes the 5,000 bags and crates lined up at DYE-Main, waiting to be transported.
Another 283,000 cubic metres of less contaminated soil and non-hazardous waste — steel drums, demolished warehouses, garages, living quarters, giant antennas, water tanks — will have been buried on site in new, engineered landfills.
Then there’s 202,000 cubic metres of soil contaminated by diesel fuel, placed in “land farms” where it’s tossed and turned until the hydrocarbon evaporates to levels set by the clean-up criteria.
These volumes of waste could fill 208 Olympic-size swimming pools. That, however, does not include the many more thousands of cubic metres of garbage in 83 non-hazardous waste landfills that existed before the clean-up. They were secured, often with a cover of gravel.
The 21 DND sites will eventually be left with 134 landfills. (The biggest at DYE-Main is 200 metres long by 200 metres wide.) Sixteen are filled with moderately contaminated soils. They average 62,000 cubic metres.
Inuit leaders consider the clean-up a success. It’s widely applauded as the best thing to hit the Arctic since the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. But as one historic problem ends, another one looms. A scramble is on for the Arctic’s resources, partly because of by seas made ice-free by global warming.
There’s talk of a new Cold War as Canada, Russia, the U.S. and others file competing claims of sovereignty over parts of the Arctic. The U.S. rejects Canadian sovereignty over the fabled Northwest Passage, Canadian fighter planes have scrambled to intercept Russian bombers. The federal government plans a naval facility at the eastern gate of the Passage.
International oil companies salivate at the prospect of offshore rigs. Proposals for massive mines, like the Mary River iron project on Baffin Island, are also adding up, as are the costs to taxpayers to clean up abandoned ones.
The projects can be a source of much-needed Inuit jobs. But as the rush in resources and geopolitics intensifies over one of the most sensitive ecosystems on Earth, the DEW Line’s legacy makes for a cautionary tale.