Heated Arctic Dispute - Greenland, Alaska Natives Balk at New U.S. Military Plans

Fellows Spring 2001

By Korey Capozza

June 06, 2009

Nuuk, Greenland -- As the Bush administration seeks to upgrade military bases in the Arctic as part of its land-based missile defense strategy, a growing voice of opposition is emerging from the Earth's attic.

Although the plan is likely to bring millions of dollars in investment to isolated northern Inuit communities, many fear that the arrival of missile silos and advanced radars may also bring environmental destruction.

During the Cold War, the Arctic became ground zero for U.S. communications and surveillance operations designed to thwart a Soviet attack from the north.

When the Cold War thawed, military sites were abandoned and left to decay on the Arctic tundra. Contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), petroleum, radioactive waste and solvents, they still pose a toxic threat to local ecosystems.

Now, communities in Greenland and Alaska are bracing for what promises to be a second military boom in their territory. But if the military still has not cleaned up its former sites here, many northerners are wondering whether they should welcome a new wave of development.

"In order to make room for the Americans' Thule air base in 1953, the (Inuit) inhabitants were forcibly relocated," said Aqaluq Lynge, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, Greenland's largest Inuit organization. "They lost their hunting grounds and were given only tents to live in."

The 650 displaced Inuit from Thule sued the Danish government, Greenland's former colonial ruler and current foreign policy representative, over this episode of forced exile and won a $71,400 settlement.

Now they are filing for more compensation, and their case will be heard in the Danish Supreme High Court this fall.

"We are fighting for the Americans to clean up Thule and give it back to us, " said Axel Lund Olsen, deputy mayor of Qaanaaq, the community formed by displaced Thule Inuit. "If one day a war begins, people are afraid that if a bomb would hit Thule air base, all of the food we eat from the sea would be destroyed."


Greenland natives depend on Arctic wildlife for survival, said Olsen. The animals that have sustained them for centuries -- walrus, seal, whale and polar bear -- now carry high burdens of contaminants, which arrive in Greenland through long-range air currents and from local sources like U.S. defense sites.

In central Greenland, three radar sites that were part of the Distance Early Warning radar system (the DEW line) were deserted in 1991, but the pollution there was never dealt with.

Contamination at the DEW line sites is a problem that plagues communities from Alaska to Greenland. Between 1953 and 1958, the United States aggressively built a vast network of radar sites along the 69th parallel designed to thwart a Soviet attack from the north.

Over 30 tons of PCBs were used in the construction and maintenance of the DEW line. Discarded transformers made to withstand extreme temperatures and high electrical currents are the primary source of PCBs, known cancer-causing agents.

The DEW line and other northern radar systems constituted one of the most expensive military projects ever initiated during peacetime. Now those sites, largely based in northern Canada, are an environmental blight that will cost foreign governments hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up. In Canada alone, the price tag of remediation is estimated at $500 million.

Under the current missile defense plan, the U.S. Defense Department will spend $200 million to upgrade existing radar technology at Thule. Eventually, experimental X-band radars may be imported to the site.

According to Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, spokesman for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization in Washington, the Defense Department is not required to complete an environmental impact statement for sites that are located outside the United States.

He insists that Greenland communities should not worry about environmental damage because the new radar technology being considered for Thule is mostly computer equipment that will not bring any additional contaminants to the site.


But the word of the U.S. military is taken with a large dose of skepticism here.

In 1995, Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen told reporters that no nuclear weapons were deployed in Greenland. Denmark and Greenland have a policy barring nuclear weapons within their borders. Two weeks later, Petersen received a confidential letter from then-U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry stating that, indeed, air defense warheads and surface-to-air missiles had been stored at Thule without Greenland's knowledge. The crisis became known as "Thulegate" in Denmark.

"We want to be at the table in any discussion about MDP (the missile defense plan) and Thule," said Malinannguaq Markussen, chairwoman of the committee on missile defense for the Greenland Home-Rule government.

The missile defense's largest hub will be in Fort Greely, Alaska, where it has run into heated opposition from environmental groups. The base was used for biological and chemical weapons testing in the 1950s and 1960s and housed a nuclear reactor that is now entombed in a sarcophagus on-site.

Under the missile defense plan, five missile silos will be built at Fort Greely as early as next spring.

Environmentalists and native groups who live near the site contend that dangerous contamination has not been fully addressed.

"Tribal members hiking through that area have found canisters of mustard gas," said Howard Mermelstein, tribal manager of the Healy Lake Village Council, an Athabaskan tribe that lives next door to Fort Greely.

On his desk, Mermelstein keeps an unexploded 1945 howitzer shell that a tribal member found near his office only three weeks ago. He says he uses it as a paperweight and as a reminder of the dangerous materials that are still lurking on the tribe's lands.


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is charged with cleaning up Fort Greely, has assured the public that the site no longer poses any health threat.

The Corps is working to remedy all remaining contamination, said John Killoran, spokesman for the Corps in Alaska.

On Aug. 28, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Alaska Community Action on Toxics (AKAT) and six other environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department to force it to draft new environmental impact statements on missile defense activities in Alaska. Like activists in Greenland, the plaintiffs hope to bring local concerns to the fore as the missile defense debate heats up in Washington.

"The military has not addressed the existing toxic and radioactive waste that they have left here," said AKAT Director Pam Miller. "Why should they be able to come in and put in yet another technology that might possibly be obsolete in a few years, on top of the mess that they have already created?"


Distrust of U.S. military operations in Greenland runs high, and it reached a fever pitch last summer when a group of former Thule air base workers and Danish parliamentarians gained access to declassified U.S. military documents and found some support for what Greenlanders had suspected for decades -- that an unexploded American hydrogen bomb disappeared somewhere off the northwestern coast of Greenland.

In 1968, a B-52 bomber laden with four nuclear bombs crashed 12 miles from the Thule base.

Decades later, reports of cancer and other illnesses began to surface among Danish and Greenlander Thule air base workers. In 1995, the Danish government acknowledged their plight and paid a $15.5 million settlement to the 1,700 workers who had been exposed to radiation during the 1968 accident.

"You still have some leftover plutonium in that area that used to be our hunting grounds," contends Aqaluq Lynge of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. "Now that's off-limits to us as well."

According to a 1991 Danish study, sediment on the bottom of Bylot Sound near where the plane crashed has extremely elevated levels of radioactive plutonium contamination -- more than 100,000 becquerels per square meter. The Danish researchers also found levels of plutonium in bivalves, or shellfish, up to 1,000 times higher than precrash levels.

The Pentagon has conceded that not all of the plutonium involved in the crash was recovered -- about one pound of plutonium escaped into the environment -- but has always contended that every one of the bombs on board was accounted for.