Reclamation of DEW Line Sites

In the 1950s, with the Cold War progressing and tension mounting in the West, a study group headed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recommended that a Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line¹ be built across the Canadian and U.S. Arctic as well as Greenland to address the threat of Soviet bomber attacks. After the design and testing of various prototypes in Alaska and Illinois, construction of the DEW Line started in earnest in December 1954. Two years and eight months later in July 1957, 63 DEW Line sites were completed and control turned over to the U.S. Air Force.

The construction activities at each of these stations included radar equipment, communication equipment, housing, roads, storage tanks, and, for the main or intermediate stations, air fields and aircraft hangers—all in some of the most uninhabitable regions of the Arctic. An estimated 25,000 people worked on or planned the sites for a rumored cost of $750 million.

Of the 63 DEW Line stations, 42 were on Canadian soil stretching across the Canadian Arctic. The others are in Alaska, mainland United States, and Greenland. With the advance of surveillance and radar technology, 21 of the Canadian sites were decommissioned in the early 1960s and turned over to the Canadian Department and Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC). In 1993 the DEW Line ceased operation and was officially replaced by the North Warning System that doesn't require manned stations.

Over the lifespan of the DEW Line, the sites were operated using practices and materials accepted by the environmental standards of the time. The environmental standards of today are very different from those of yesterday. Clean-up concerns include hydrocarbons and hazardous materials such as radioluminescent dials or switches, batteries, antifreeze agents, solvents, paint thinners, and soil containing PCBs and lead.

The Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) is responsible for these sites and is undertaking clean-up operations according to agreements reached with the Inuit (Nunavut territory) and Inuvialuit (Northwest Territories) of Northern Canada in the mid 1990s. DND is responsible for the costs related to the clean up with some funding coming from the United States through an October 1996 Canada-United States Military Installations Clean-up Agreement. Many of the DEW Line sites have been converted to North Warning System sites. DND has been reviewing its requirements related to the North Warning System sites and is proceeding with legal surveys to ensure long-term tenure for these sites as well as reclamation processes for the DEW Line installations.

One example of a DEW Line site reclamation project is the Cape Dyer site (DYE Main in DEW Line jargon). SNC Lavalin was hired to begin the reclamation work at Cape Dyer, a multimillion dollar, multi-year undertaking, and Challenger Geomatics Ltd. was hired to provide survey support for all onsite activities.

Challenger embarked on this exciting project with its Inuit partner, Sakku Investments Corporation of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. All work that Challenger performs in Nunavut is done in partnership with Sakku and is operating under the name Inukshuk Nunami Geomatics (Nunami means "on land" in the Inuktitut language of the Inuit of Nunavut). Challenger strongly believes that its partnership with Sakku Investments was instrumental in winning this contract.

Challenger is very proud of its relationship with the Inuit: the benefits to both the Inuit communities and Challenger are immense. Having labor resources in the north has facilitated many projects before the DEW Line project and will continue to support Challenger as it works North of 60. The most obvious benefits are economic in nature. But there are also training and employment and other benefits for the local communities. As a geomatics company working in Northern Canada, it helps to build local support so people will be available to work on northern projects in the future.

There were two significant sites in the reclamation project connected by a road. One site was at the ocean where there was a port, bulk fuel storage, and structures for supplies. The other was the radar site which was about 20km inland from the ocean site. The strategy for reclamation was containment. At each site, the contaminated soil was dug up and the resulting hole was lined with rubber to make a "pond." The soil was then returned to the hole and covered with a layer of plastic and finally a layer of fresh soil. Joe Iles, Challenger's project manager for the project commented, "Generally the goal was to contain contaminated materials, remove buildings and unnecessary structures, and try to return the landscape to a more natural and safe original environment." In addition to surveying to assist with layout and direction of the reclamation projects, Challenger also completed monthly volume calculations of the materials moved at the site.

Work proceeded on a three-week rotation with a day at each end for travelling time and onsite shifts of 12 hours. When the Challenger team arrived at the Cape Dyer site in early June 2007, they were greeted with 10 feet of snow. Shane McKay was one of the surveyors onsite and it was his first visit to Nunavut—what a shock! Their first job was to survey an area to be cleared so the reclamation projects could get underway. The work continued until mid-September when it shut down for the winter due to snowfall.

Survey work in Canada's arctic, especially in Nunavut, has a very short window: generally it is carried out from June to September. Almost all DEW Line sites and North Warning System sites are located north of the Arctic circle (approximately 66o30' latitude) in very remote areas that can only be accessed by airplanes or helicopters. Weather plays havoc to all the best laid logistic plans with frequent delays. Northern surveyors are used to sitting around waiting for flights in or out of a work location!

The locations are breathtaking, the weather unpredictable, the wildlife abundant and very wild, living is in camps, and people are isolated. Why wouldn't a surveyor want to work on those projects? It could potentially be a career hightlight…

About the Author

Marie Robidoux, CLS, LL.M. is the Association of Canada Lands Surveyors' first female president. She has a law degree from Laval University, a survey technology diploma from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and a Master of Laws in Information Technology from the Robert Kennedy University in Switzerland. She obtained her Canada Lands Surveyor Commission in 1993. Marie is responsible for Aboriginal and northern projects as well as business development in northern Canada for Challenger Geomatics Ltd. She has been involved with the ACLS for years, serving on several committees as well as serving as a council member.

¹An excellent website on the DEW Line can be found at

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