by Julee Boan

Aging signs warning visitors of health risks from asbestos are the only visible evidence of the contaminants in the soil and air surrounding 17 former military sites scattered across Ontario’s Hudson Bay coastline. Abandoned in 1965, the sites were to function as early indicators of a military attack by detecting aircraft through radar. Between 1955 and 1965, while the sites were in operation, a toxic mix of pesticides such as DDT, chlordane, heptachlor and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were discharged. More recently, residual oil in abandoned barrels has been leaching into the soil. Despite the accumulation of chemicals in the immediate terrestrial and aquatic environments – which have been making their way through the food chain – the federal government has yet to initiate a thorough clean up of the sites.

Location and politics are to be blame for the prolonged delay. Many local residents believe that if this kind of contamination had occurred in downtown Toronto, the sites would have been cleaned up decades ago. After the sites were closed during the 1960s, the federal lands in the North were transferred to the provincial government, and the resulting bureaucratic mess has blurred the lines of financial responsibility for expensive remediation. As a result, only one of the sites has been rehabilitated to date.

For more than 20 years, First Nations communities that live along the coast have been working hard to get both levels of government to pay attention to the issue. Grand Chief Stan Louttit of the Mushkegowuk Council, speaking on behalf of First Nation communities in the region, has been in discussions with the Department of National Defence since 1994. He is cautiously optimistic that the negotiations between the federal and provincial governments will result in an agreement to proceed with some sort of remedial action. “It is very frustrating to get governments to understand the seriousness of this environmental contamination in northern Ontario. Since this is in an isolated area of the province, no one pays attention. This is very unfortunate. I hope that governments come to their senses and do the right thing and that is to finally clean up this environmental disaster.”