In January 1999, I wrote a column describing a snowmobile trip my dad, my brothers and I took north of Attawapiskat in the middle of February. On that adventure I experienced the coldest winter temperatures of my life. Our destination was Lakitusaki River, or as it is known in English, Lake River, right in the heart of Polar Bear Provincial Park in the north-eastern corner of Ontario where James Bay and Hudson Bay meet.
As part of our visit to prepare for the spring goose hunt and set up supplies for March, we took a side trip north to an abandoned radar station. That location is a remnant of the Cold War years and it was one of many stations that were set up in remote northern Canada to warn of Soviet missiles flying over the North Pole. The station we visited was site 415, where it is located on a rise of land in the midst of flat featureless tundra.
The location is an amazing testament to the will, determination and ingenuity of people who organize themselves to accomplish the near impossible. The station is located about 500 kilometres from the nearest rail or roadway. It is an amazing sight, with four enormous radar dishes that stand over 50 feet high and a lot of technical equipment.
At the time of construction, technology and support facilities to run everything were transported by tractors over winter roads or by heavy lifting aircraft. Everything to maintain this facility including fuel, oil, building supplies and machinery had to be brought in. Essentially, a whole community of people and enough material to build a small town were brought into this wilderness as part of the game of “who will pull the trigger first.”
Unfortunately, this building and the supplies also brought 1950s-era chemicals, toxic materials and oils into untouched wilderness. Back then, no one really knew the toxic effects of PCBs, asbestos or large amounts of oil and associated chemicals. All these were hauled onto the land in great quantities.
As soon as technology improved to offer a better warning system, these radar stations became obsolete and there was no more need to maintain or keep them operational. Instead of going through the difficult task of dismantling the stations and taking everything away, the military officials who led the march onto the tundra decided instead to leave everything behind. To them it made economic sense to abandon everything rather than to go through the expensive task of transporting material south again.
The abandoned materials include hundreds of gallons of fuel, gasoline and oil, as well as working vehicles, tractors and trucks. There are several buildings that housed all sorts of chemicals, PCBs and other toxins.
I remember speaking to several Elders from the James Bay coast who were hired to dismantle and salvage most of the really expensive equipment. They explained that valuable equipment and even vehicles that could not be recovered were buried in the ground. The rest was left to rot, rust, drain and soak into the land. So much was left behind that, for years after the decommissioning, hunters, trappers or traditional travelers would regularly visit the site to gather building material, fuel or even gas for their snowmobiles.
I was surprised to later learn that this was just one of about a hundred sites of different types that were set up in northern Canada during the 1950s. In the late 1980s, many communities along the James Bay coast began to learn of the dangers that former stations like site 415 posed to the land. In fact, scientists and ecologists determined that the contamination was slowly affecting the surrounding wildlife and the people who harvested these animals.
I am now happy to report that the Mushkegowuk Council, a tribal council that represents the communities along the James Bay coast, established the Mushkegowuk Environmental Research Centre (MERC) in 2005 to conduct research into the environment and natural resources on the western James Bay basin in Ontario. The organization‚Äôs work includes the study of ecological and health effects caused by the contamination of locations like site 415 and other military installations in the Mushkegowuk area.
As part of an ongoing effort to inform people about this environmental disaster, MERC has developed a video, available through their website at www.merc.ontera.net It is an informative and educational video that tells the story of these ghostly, toxic radar stations. A decade ago, few people knew about these sites but with the establishment of MERC, we now have a core group of people who are working hard to deal with these abandoned toxic stations.
Meegwetch to MERC for helping to bring this issue to light. Finally, the land is being cleansed of this poison.