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First Nations still waiting for environmental clean-up

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Cheryl Petten, Birchbark Writer, Timmins







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It's been four decades since the 98 radar sites that made up the Mid-Canada Line were shut down, but First Nations communities west of Hudson and James Bays are still living with the environmental fall out from the sites on a daily basis.

The Mid-Canada Line, also called the McGill Fence, was one of three lines of radar sites strung across Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, designed to give advanced warning should bombers from the Soviet Union attack North America from across the North Pole. The Mid-Canada Line was built near the mid-point of Canada. Further to the north, the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line stretched across the country, while to the south, the 44 sites that made up the Pinetree Line dotted the landscape. As the Soviet weapons capability expanded, defence concerns shifted to detecting incoming missiles rather than bombers,and both the Mid-Canada Line and the Pinetree Line were shut down. By April 1965, none of the Mid-Canada Line sites remained operational.

But they did remain. The radar sites in Ontario had been built on provincial Crown land. When the line was decommissioned, the Department of National Defence transferred the land-and the now inactive radar bases-back to the province.

During the intervening years, the 17 radar sites in Ontario sat untouched, rotting and rusting away, all the while leaching toxins like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and asbestos into the surrounding environment.

Stan Louttit, grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents seven First Nations communities in the area affected by the Mid-Canada Line contamination, called the abandoned radar sites "environmental travesties."

"Not only are they polluting the land and an environmental eyesore and a danger to the wildlife and the vegetation and humans in the area, there's concern as well from the people who live and hunt and trap near those areas that there might be a link to some very serious health matters that have occurred over the past while, including people who have had cancer and who have since passed away over the past years," he said.

"The biggest concern, I guess, is probably around the PCBs," aid Job Mollins Koene, lands and resources co-ordinator with the Mushkegowuk Council. "The ground is laced with PCBs at these sites because ... they used massive generators and transformers and so all the electrical equipment had PCB oil in there, and it's all drained out into the earth and it's been taken up by the plants and through the food chain to the animals. And many people in these communities still depend on the wildlife for a main part of their diets."

The clean-up process will involve much more than simply clearing away the infrastructure left behind at the sites-the contaminated soil surrounding the sites will need to be excavated as well, Mollins Koene said.

One of the 17 Ontario sites, in Fort Albany, was cleaned up in 2000 by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. During the clean up, highly contaminated soil was removed, and soil with lower levels of contamination was put in an engineered landfill on the site. With the remaining sites, Mollins Koene expects all the contaminated soil will have to be removed.

"Some of these sites are in Polar Bear Provincial Park, a lot of them are, actually. And so I don't think Ontario Parks would allow a landfill, so they'll have to remove everything," Job Mollins Koene said.

The process won't come cheaply. Stan Louttit said initial estimates show it could cost $60 million to clean up all the remaining sites in Ontario.

Why haven't the sites been dealt with before now? It's a question of jurisdiction, of who is ultimately responsible to clean up the sites and the resulting contamination. Over the years, the federal government has contended that, because the lands were transferred back to the province in 1965, the clean up is a provincial responsibility. The province has countered that argument, saying the federal governmet built the radar sites in the first place and so the feds should foot the bill-polluter pays.

"And we're saying, well, we don't care. You're both responsible," Louttit said. "We need to get the work done because of the environmental issues and the health issues that are prevalent, and we can't wait another 40 years."

When the two governments last got together to discuss clean up of the abandoned radar sites in the late 1990s, the federal government was willing to pay half the cost, but the province refused to pay the other half, Mollins Koene said. Now the situation has reversed itself, with the province committing to pitching in its share, and the federal government holding out.

There is, Louttit said, a "glimmer of hope" that this issue will finally be resolved. The Department of National Defence has appointed a negotiator to talk with the province about the clean up, with a meeting expected by the end of October.

The news that the federal and provincial governments are both ready to at least talk about cleaning up the Mid-Canada Line sites is good indeed, but its no guarantee of results. To better the odds, the Mushkegowuk Council plans to turn the heat up on the issue, hoping public pressure will encourage the parties to finally come to an agreement.

The council has joined forces with the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which has thrown its support behind the drive to get the clean up process on track. The two organizations are partnering on a Web site that will provide background information about the Mid-Canada Line sites and tell them how they can help bring pressure to bear to finally get the sites cleaned up. The Web site will be available through a link on the Friends of the Earth Web site (www.foecanada.org).

While, as of yet, there has been no more to involve First Nation representation in the planned discussions between the federal and provincial governments, Louttit is hopeful that will change.

"It's critical," he sai. "If they leave us out, well, that shows again that the government is not serious about us as the people who inhabit the area and live in the area and who deal with these issues day in and day out. So I'll make it a point, certainly, to be involved in these discussions."