US cold-war waste irks Greenland
Pentagon refuses to clean up toxic military bases, saying it would set a bad precedent.
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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.