Resolution Island cleanup near complete

From environmental meltdown to make-work project



Iqaluit residents upset by unearthed oil drums discovered during construction in Lower Base should take a trip about 300 kilometres southeast.

Contaminants unearthed in Nunavut’s capital are nothing compared to what’s found further offshore.

Visit Resolution Island and you’ll find one of the worst contaminated sites under the responsibility of the department of Indian and Northern Affairs. (The most seriously contaminated sites are handled by the Department of National Defence.)

By the end of this season, cleanup for the area will be complete, although the government will continue to monitor the site for the next 25 years.

Just over half a century ago, construction finished for a radar base on the island that would be staffed by the U.S. military from 1954-61. Following that, the Canadian military and coast guard took over from 1961-74. Afterwards, until 1989, it lay abandoned.

As the site fell into disrepair, heavy metals like lead, mercury and cobalt seeped into the soil. The site also had its share of oil spills, and the old buildings contained asbestos.

Most alarming: old electrical equipment leaked transformer oil containing PCBs, a group of chemicals that accumulate to toxic levels in the fatty tissue of marine mammals.

The radar site perches atop a hill. Contaminants have followed the natural drainage route, traveling down a slight incline towards a steep cliff that overhangs the beach below.

Polar bears are known to frequent the island, and project officer Lou Spagnuolo has seen plenty of evidence they’ve explored the site. “A lot of the buildings had claw marks on the doors,” he said.

Foxes have also been seen on the island, and the odd narwhal or beluga can be spotted off the coast.

When Spagnuolo first arrived on site years ago, drums littered the site, both empty and full, along with other metal debris, and even mattresses.

The legacy of contaminated waste left behind is a product of the times, he said. During the 1950s and 1960s, chemicals like PCBs were commonly used in electrical transformers, and the environmental consequences were unknown.

“It was never thought of as a bad thing to throw a transformer out the back door.”

Since cleanup began in 1997, nine tons of transformer oil has been found in the soil, enough to fill 45 drums. The soil it contaminated could fill a football field four metres deep.

Cleanup efforts have intensified since 2003, and the last of that seriously contaminated soil has been packed into 1,700 large steel containers, dubbed “flowerpots” by the workers on-site.

Most of those containers have already been shipped south to be incinerated in a facility in Quebec. The remaining 300-odd flowerpots should be shipped off in the next week or two.

Lesser grades of contaminated soil have been buried and capped.

The final year of cleanup at Resolution Island also spells the end of a significant make-work project for Nunavut’s economy.

This season 73 workers are employed by Qikiqtaaluk Corporation, which has been contracted to do the remediation work. The large majority of those employed have been Inuit, and every season about one-quarter of those trained heavy-equipment workers have left to continue other kinds of construction work. Close to $45 million has been spent by the federal government since clean-up began.

Today, new short-range radar stations stand like tiny golf-balls against the large, abandoned billboard antennas. While the old U.S. military stations employed about 100, the new ones are unmanned. With cleanup finished this summer, Resolution Island will be abandoned once more, save the periodic visit for environmental monitoring.

Resolution Island is one of 23 high-priority sites monitored by INAC.

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