The Distant Early Warning Line: An Environmental Legacy Project

Video / November 28, 2013

The Distant Early Warning Line, or DEW Line, was a series of radar stations across the arctic, from Alaska through Canada over Greenland to Iceland. The Americans conceived that the DEW line could detect enemy bombers coming over the North Pole that could threaten North American cities.

Back in the early 1950s, the U.S. government determined that they needed a series of radar stations across the Arctic that could detect enemy bombers coming over the Pole. The U.S. needed Canadian territory to detect the enemy bombers far enough away so they asked the Canadian government to partner with them. However, the Canadian government had just finished building two lines and didn’t have the resources really to do another line. So they agreed with the Americans, yes, we need this line, and as long as you pay for it and construct it, we will allow you access to Canadian territory.

The DEW Line clean-up project was the largest engineering project at the time in the world. It involved over 30 000 tons of supply, that’s like 10 000 railcars full of supplies that were shipped up here by ship and by aircraft. And the whole thing was done in less than three years.

The DEW Line was shut down in the late 1980s. The reason was the technology had changed so much that Canada and the U.S. realized they needed a new series of radar stations to replace the DEW Line, and that was the birth of the North Warning System. We became aware of environmental problems at the former DEW Lines sites in 1989 when both Canada and the United States commissioned environmental studies to see what was the effect of the DEW Line.

The DEW Line Clean-up Protocol was established with other government departments and the people of the north, to determine the risk proposed by the DEW Line sites. The risk of the DEW Line sites was mainly a local risk about 10 kilometers around the sites and it was caused by contaminated soil and the contents of landfills left on the sites. There was really only a long-term environmental risk to these sites - the contamination of the sites is not severe. However, it would have a long-term effect on the ecosystem and on human health.

The DEW Line clean-up project was established in the early 1990s. It was a National Defence project to clean up the former radar sites, to stop the environmental contamination that’s on the sites getting into the environment.

DYE-Main was the largest of the 21 sites. It’s located on the eastern end of Baffin Island, and it was a communications hub and a sector hub. So it was the largest site. I’ve been told its had as many as 200 people living on the site at one time.

The clean-up involved demolishing old buildings, removing hazardous materials from the buildings. We had to construct landfills, we had to re-grade and improve existing landfills on site, pick up scattered debris. And then generally leave the area so that we wouldn’t hurt the permafrost or cause any additional erosion.

The cost of the DEW Line clean-up was $575 million dollars. And that’s for what was the largest environmental project by the Canadian government at the time.

There were many partners during the DEW Line clean-up. The various government departments such as Health Canada, Indian and Northern Affairs, and Environment Canada, were involved with this. But the key partners were the Inuit and Inuvialuit. And they worked with us in a true partnership to develop what was required on these sites and to make sure they were cleaned up properly.

Now that all the sites have been cleaned up, we’ve instituted a monitoring program to look at each of the sites, for the first five years. Each year, take soil and water samples, to make sure they’ve been cleaned up properly. Stayed cleaned up, and then after five years in different intervals, we’ll be coming back to make sure we leave no hazard to the environment.

The many workers on the DEW Line clean-up sites are very proud of the work they’ve done. I think as Canadians we should be proud that we’ve seen a problem, and we’ve properly cleaned it up and now there’s no further problem for the environment.

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