Wednesday, August 27, 2008

US Cold-War Waste Irks Greenland

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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