The federal government says it is finished cleaning up 21 Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line stations in Canada’s Arctic, the largest environmental remediation project taken on by the government to date.
Tony Clement, president of the Treasury Board, was in Yellowknife last week to make the announcement and touted the project as Canada’s most extensive environmental victory.
“The completion of this project will be the largest remediation project, in terms of scale and cost, ever undertaken by the government of Canada,” he said.
Costing a total of $575 million over 25 years, the project involved removal of contaminated soil and debris from the decommissioned radar stations that were built by the US in the 1950s as a warning system for Cold War enemy aircraft.
Extending from Alaska to Iceland, the DEW Line was historically made up of 63 radar sites and, of those, 42 were located on Canadian soil. In the 1960s, the department of National Defence (DND) took over half of the sites and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada decommissioned and took on responsibility for the other half.
DND replaced its radar sites with the North Warning System in the late 1980s and launched the DEW Line cleanup project through contracts with Inuit and Inuvialuit construction companies.
Four of the 21 DEW Line sites still require some work to remove temporary structures used during the cleanup. A 25-year monitoring project is planned to keep tabs on the former sites.
Stories from a former DEW Liner
Former DEW Liner Brian Jeffrey was a member of the team manning radar sites from 1960 to 1963 and told The Journal he recalls the mentality at the time was not about reducing waste.
“When we were up there, we created all this garbage, I know that, but we gave no thought to it at all, but then nor did the rest of the world,” he said. “It was a lifestyle thing, we didn’t know. Now we all take much better care of our garbage.”
Twenty years old at the time and trained in electronics, Jeffrey got the job on the DEW Line site through a newspaper advertisement and was the youngest operator to be sent up.
The salary was great, but it was an introvert’s heaven, he said. Connecting with locals was an important part of keeping social and sane.
“Inuit that worked on the site were generally heavy equipment operators, welders, mechanics. All were extremely competent…incredible workers,” Jeffrey said.
For some of the Inuit families, the DEW Line workers were their first interaction with southerners and the “outside world.”
Jeffery only worked on the DEW Line for three of his 72 years, but he said he will never forget the experience, or his encounter with a girl named Emily Nakoolak.
“Emily is a charming little lady and I had the opportunity to meet her and her parents several times across the Line. The Inuit would move from station to station as well,” Jeffery said.
Only a young child, Emily had got her finger caught in a door as it closed and her parents brought her to Jeffrey as the resident first responder. Just before he was able to give Emily a shot of penicillin, an RCMP officer burst into the building and took over the operation.
“These guys are trained in first aid far beyond what I was, so he actually gave Emily the injection, which probably caused her a lot less pain than if I had done it,” he said. Jeffrey learned later in life that Emily had died, but he was able to share a picture of her with the family.
Jeffrey, now living in Ottawa, had a chance to return to the DEW Line sites in 2012 and took many photographs during his stroll down memory lane. He said he hopes at least some of the sites are preserved to keep the heritage alive.
The former DEW Liner has shared his story of “adventures from the Coldest Part of the Cold War” in a blog called DEW Line Adventures, found at http://www.dewlineadventures.com/