Sweeping the tundra
Resolution Island clean-up crew wraps up a summer of scraping contaminants off the rocky ground
RESOLUTION ISLAND — Two men decked out from head to toe in white suits to protect themselves from contaminants run a large hose over the rocky ground of Resolution Island, sucking up PCB-ridden soil.
Scouring the earth, the workers vacuum up as much of the material as they can from this heavily polluted former American radar site.
“It’s the hardest job on the island,” says Chris Giroux, the assistant site supervisor for the clean-up project.
The smell of chloral benzene in the air is a good indication of a high level of contaminants in the ground, explains Graham Cairns, a scientist from Queen’s University who is collecting soil samples and studying the levels of PCBs on the island.
Work to clean up the contaminants has been ongoing each summer since 1997. The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has funded the project. And Qikiqtaaluk Corp., which has the clean-up contract, hires Inuit to work at Resolution Island.
The United States Air Force abandoned the radar site on Resolution Island in 1972, after using it for 19 years. It left behind a waste site full of PCBs, lead, cobalt and petroleum. PCBs that leaked out of old equipment and generator stations have seeped into the ground. Environmental scientists consider Resolution Island to be one of the most PCB-contaminated places in Canada.
This season, a crew of about 50 Inuit have been working on the island, located at the southern tip of Baffin Island, since mid-July. Drums full of contaminated soil they are collecting will eventually be shipped to a PCB treatment plant in southern Canada.
In addition to vacuuming the tundra, workers are scraping the ground to gather soil. Mounds of soil are picked up using an excavator and dumped into a machine called a screener. The screener sifts the materials to separate the soil from the rocks. The rocks fall to the ground, while the soil is poured into a compartment and then loaded into trucks and brought to a storage shed.
Workers are also collecting old oil drums and debris scattered over the island.
Harry Flaherty, who is heading up the project for Qikiqtaaluk Corp., said most of the rust-coloured drums no longer contain oil.
“A lot of the barrels you’ll see there are just filled with water,” Flaherty said looking at pile of drums near the edge of a cliff.
The drums are steam cleaned to get rid of any oil residue, then shredded and dumped into the landfill.
Drums that do contain oil are drained and the oil is burned off in a waste-oil incinerator on site. Joshua Kiguktak keeps an eye on flames shooting out of the incinerator. He constantly checks pipes and adjusts knobs to control the incinerator’s temperature.
“It gets kind of clogged up so I have to make sure it’s working right,” says the 20-year-old Iqaluit resident who is working for his second summer at Resolution Island.
His shifts at the incinerator are long, but a chair set up on a platform near the incinerator offers a spectacular view of the cliffs and the water. “Sometimes you can relax and enjoy the view,” Kiguktak says.
This season’s work is wrapping up this week and employees are getting ready to close up the camp where they’ve lived for the last six weeks.
Many, like site supervisor Chris Giroux, are crossing their fingers that the ever-looming fog holds off long enough for them to get off the island. Last week, thick fog prevented planes from landing on the island for five days.
“Mother Nature sure is our enemy sometimes,” Giroux says with a smile.