Abandoned explosives, leaking chemical and petroleum tanks, dilapidated buildings, rusty vehicles and scattered debris continue to litter the Canol Heritage Trail in the Sahtu mountains decades after the American government abandoned its war efforts there in the early 1940s.
Now, after seven years of assessing the remediation needs of the trail, the Canadian government says it will soon be able to launch cleanup efforts of the historic pipeline route that is destined to one day become a territorial park.
That is, if parties can settle on who will clean up the 1,600 km of abandoned telephone wire currently entangling wildlife and posing a risk to hikers along the trail.
With poles down across the mountains, the strong lead-copper wire is strewn about the wilderness there, where residents say it has been ensnaring caribou and moose, who die either from starvation or as easy prey for bears or wolves.
“They’re like sitting ducks,” said Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya, who said he has seen firsthand the leftovers of the trapped animals. “It makes me cry when I see that, to see those antlers in those wires.”
Yakeleya, who leads a youth hike on the Canol Trail each summer, said the wire poses a risk for hikers, who are literally tripping over it as they trek along the already challenging alpine trail.
“It’s causing the most heartache for our people and, of course, the animals. Even when the hikers were hiking the trail, the telephone poles are down so the wires are on the ground and the hikers trip over these wires. It’s not safe for them, let alone the moose and caribou that come in and get caught up in the telephone wire,” Yakeleya said.
The communications wire, another leftover from the World War II effort, does not fall on the federal government’s list of items eligible for contaminated sites cleanup. The Sahtu Renewable Resources Board (SRRB) addressed a letter to the department two weeks ago asking them to add the wire to the list, but has yet to receive a response.
AANDC officials told The Journal that the Tulita Band launched a project in 2009 to address the abandoned communications wire with the help of Willow Lake Environmental Inc. and funding from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, but representatives at SRRB said they had never heard of such a plan. No one at the Tulita Band could be reached for comment.
Yakeleya said he is concerned that if the communications wire is abandoned once more, the promised park could be in jeopardy.
As part of the Sahtu Dene and Métis Comprehensive Land Claim, the territorial government agreed to develop the Canol Heritage Trail as part of the proposed Doi T’oh Territorial Park.
Since most of the trail is on Crown land, plans to create the park will not be completed until the federal government cleans up the hazardous material along the trail and thereby transfers ownership of the land to the government of the Northwest Territories.
“I’m concerned that it’s not on the eligibility list for the contamination cleanup; it falls outside and we now have to look for a solution. I don’t know if the GNWT will accept the park if that’s still an issue,” Yakeleya said. “It puts the park at risk, because who is going to be responsible for cleaning up the telephone line?”
Assessment stage nearing completion
AANDC compiled an inventory of the abandoned waste between 2007 and 2009, following which the department carried out environmental assessments at sites along the trail, as well as a risk assessment for human health and ecology and an archaeological impact assessment.
Now that the assessment phase is nearing completion, AANDC plans to meet with local communities and the territorial government to develop a remediation plan for the area to ensure the approach is acceptable. A meeting is tentatively set for this fall.
Yakeleya said the cleanup is likely to take up to five years to execute, though AANDC officials could not provide specifics on the time frame or what the total expense of the operation would be.
“Additional data is being collected this summer. At this stage it is too early to discuss possible details that may be included in the final plan, timelines or the final costs,” stated an email from the department.