Cold War relic [in Northern Ontario] ‘Site 500’ gets costly cleanup – by Steve Ladurantaye (Globe and Mail – May 27, 2011)

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Six decades after the radar operators gave up their search for Russian bombers streaking across the Northern Ontario sky, a massive cleanup effort will finally begin to erase a ghost town that was very briefly one of Canada’s most important military installations.

The town doesn’t even have a formal name – military documents simply refer to it as Site 500. It was the operations centre for the Ontario portion of the Mid Canada Line Radar installation, a network of 17 sites built as part of a national network in the 1950s to monitor the skies for foreign invaders.

Site 500 is now at the centre of the largest environmental remediation project ever undertaken in Ontario. Its scale is dwarfed only by the national cleanup of the Distant Early Warning radar line – a more northern string of radar installations that the federal government has already spent half a billion dollars cleaning.

The sites have leached contaminants into the ground over the years. PCBs, chemicals that were used in industrial products such as coolant and lubricants and have since been found to cause cancer at high levels, have been discovered in the soil, and asbestos is common in the buildings. Abandoned trucks litter the site; oil drums are scattered everywhere.

The project has received little attention because the sites are inaccessible by road and hidden away in the wilds of Northern Ontario. If not for decades of effort by first nations groups who rely on the land for fishing and hunting, the sites may have been left to rot as the federal and provincial governments bickered over who was responsible for cleaning them up.

The Department of Defence used the sites, but gave them back to the province after they were shut down. Under a recent agreement, the province will spend up to $100-million to wipe out the remnants of the radar line by 2017, with a $30-million contribution from the federal government.

Tucked away on the southern shores of Hudson Bay within Polar Bear Provincial Park, the line was disabled in the 1960s after intercontinental ballistic missile technology rendered the entire project obsolete. When operational, a few dozen people called Site 500 home; now a handful of hunters use its buildings for shelter a few weeks each year.

Site 500 is the largest of the cleanup destinations, where 20 buildings remain, including an aircraft hangar, control tower and gymnasium. Thirty thousand empty oil barrels are piled haphazardly at the site, which is difficult to reach by land. They will either have to be hauled away, or workers will need to build a proper landfill onsite.

“This project poses significant logistical challenges,” said Michael Cantan, who is overseeing the cleanup for Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources. “There are no roads, so workers need barges and helicopters. The scale of the work is pretty staggering.”

While the radar line stretched from coast to coast, Site 500 is the most remote site requiring remediation. Many sites across the rest of the country were reclaimed – in Manitoba, one remote outpost houses a school. In Stephenville, Nfld., upgraded radars scan the skies from a former installation.

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