US cold-war waste irks Greenland

Pentagon refuses to clean up toxic military bases, saying it would set a bad precedent.

An Alaskan Air National Guard C-130 lands to refuel at Thule Air Base, Greenland, while on its way home from Afghanistan.

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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