US Cold-War Waste Irks Greenland
Pentagon Refuses To Clean Up Toxic Military Bases,
Saying It Would Set A Bad Precedent.
By Colin Woodard
The Christian Science
Monitor August 22, 2008
The former Sondrestrom US Air Force Base is now a busy
community of 500, a midsized town by Greenland standards.
Runways built for heavy bombers and transports now
accommodate wide--bodied jetliners, which disgorge
passengers connecting to Greenland 's many small
airstrips. Tourists head out on musk ox safaris or join
cruise ships at the base's old supply dock, while locals
enjoy Greenland 's only indoor swimming pool, originally
built for US troops.
Greenland is dotted with former US military
installations - and one active one - a reminder of its
importance as a steppingstone in the fight against Nazi
Germany and as a cold-war surveillance and missile-detection base.
Some facilities, like Sondrestrom, have become important
economic assets to the 56,000 inhabitants of Greenland ,
a self-governing territory of the Kingdom of Denmark .
But environmental contamination at other former military
sites has bred serious tensions among leaders of
Greenland's ethnic Inuit population, their old colonial
masters in Denmark , and the Pentagon.
"The US and Denmark together have a lot to clean up,"
says Aleqa Hammond, foreign minister for Greenland 's
home rule government. "It's not even halfway done. The
East Coast and icecap areas have thousands of abandoned
barrels, and the failure to clean up the [ Thule ] air
base is something that is very heavy in our hearts."
Unsightly barrels and rubbish heaps mar the stunning
landscapes near many former military sites, including
former Distant Early Warning (DEW) stations the United
States built to detect incoming Soviet nuclear missiles.
Two DEW stations built atop the mile-thick ice cap that
covers interior Greenland were abandoned on short
notice, leaving everything from soldiers' personal
effects and paperwork to electrical equipment
contaminated with PCBs.
The fjord near Thule Air Base has elevated radiation
levels, the result of the 1968 crash of a B-52 carrying
four hydrogen bombs. Danish workers who helped clean up
from the crash weren't given protective equipment, and
some claim medical problems as a result. One of the H-
bombs was apparently never recovered, a fact that
provoked anger here in 2000, when it became public.
But in recent years, the most contentious issue has been
the US refusal to clean up dump sites and other
contamination on the Dundas Peninsula , which was turned
over to Greenlandic control in 2003, 50 years after
being incorporated into the adjacent Thule Air Base, 950
miles north of the Arctic Circle .
It's a particularly emotional issue for Greenlanders, as
an entire village was forced from their Dundas homes in
May 1953 to make way for Thule 's expansion. Given little
notice and scant support, dozens suffered for three
months in tents before homes for them were completed.
For decades, former villagers say, Danish authorities
claimed the inhabitants had consented to the relocation
and covered up the actual circumstances.
"That land is rightfully theirs," says Aqqaluk Lynge of
the Inuit Circumpolar Council and author of "The Right
of Return," a book about the relocation. "It should be
returned in the same condition as when they hunted there."
The US agreed to release the Dundas area - part of which
had been a missile launch site - but not to clean it up
first, a position that surprised Svend Auken, who was
Denmark's minister of environment during the
negotiations. "There was strong pressure on the
Americans that they should clean up after themselves,
but they wouldn't budge," Mr. Auken says. "They said,
'If you push us, we won't give you an inch of it.' "
He adds: "They said if they were to clean up after
themselves at Thule , then they would be met by similar
demands in the Philippines , Japan , and elsewhere in the
world. They didn't want to set that precedent."
Mikaela Engell, an official at the Danish Foreign
Ministry, says the US position stands in stark contrast
to that held when Sonderstrom and the DEW stations were
returned. In 1991, the US agreed to remove the most
serious environmental hazards, though barrels, rubbish,
and other less dangerous materials were often left behind.
"There was a total reversion of the American position on
the environment between 1991 and 2003," Ms. Engell says.
"There was a new administration and different political
headwinds." Danish officials say it is not yet known
what a cleanup will cost.
Under the Bush administration, the US position has been
to adhere to a 1951 agreement with Denmark , which does
not require environmental remediation. In a written
statement to the Monitor, Cheryl Irwin, a spokeswoman
for the Secretary of Defense, said the US had acted in
accordance with this treaty, which "reflected a shared
burden with our host nation for our contribution for
defense of the free world."
And while the US was not required to return the
Greenland sites to their original condition, the US had
"given up any claims for residual value of improvements
made while there," the statement continued. Furthermore,
any contamination on the sites was "the result of
'normal' practices in place at the time."
Ms. Irwin also said that Congress had "forbidden us to
remediate overseas sites returned to host nations when
not required to by an international agreement."
Two DEW line stations on the Greenland ice cap are
slowly sinking into the ice. Ken Reimer, an expert on
DEW line remediation at the Royal Military College of
Canada in Kingston, Ontario, says such stations are
often contaminated with PCBs, heavy metals, and fuel.
"It's not as if somebody who goes to the site will be
exposed to something," he says. "These chemicals aren't
an acute risk to environmental or human health, but they
can cause chronic harm."
But those extremely remote stations will probably be
left as is, due to the high cost of removing
contaminants. "You would have to take them down
entirely," says Engell of the Danish Foreign Ministry,
"It might be better to leave them standing as long as
you can and concentrate on more critical sites."
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