Nuuk to demand that Danes clean up US pollution

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The government of Greenland is expected to officially call on Copenhagen and Washington next month to begin efforts to clean up thousands of tonnes of waste left behind at over 30 abandoned U.S. military installations established while the country was officially a colony of Denmark.

The existence of the installations and their potential environmental threat has long been known in Greenland and Denmark, but received widespread attention earlier this year thanks to a paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters documented the presence of more than 9,200 tonnes of solid waste waste and millions of liters of liquid pollution left behind by the U.S. military starting in the 1940s.

Rusting oil drums litter the ground near Bluie East Two—known locally as Ikateq—an abandoned airfield in Greenland. (Fruchtzwerg via Arctic Journal)
Rusting oil drums litter the ground near Bluie East Two—known locally as Ikateq—an abandoned airfield in Greenland. (Fruchtzwerg via Arctic Journal)

“The polluter, or in this case those who have accepted and approved the pollution, must and will have to clean up the pollution,” wrote Vittus Qujaukitsoq, Greenland’s foreign minister, in an op-ed first published by Berlingske, a Danish news outlet, and republished in English.

[OPINION: The Danish government is violating agreements on indigenous peoples’ rights by not dealing with American pollution in Greenland]

The most dramatic of the bases, the once top-secret Camp Century, a fort built into the ice sheet, reportedly contains low-level radioactive wastewater that was used to cool a nuclear reactor. When the facility was abandoned in the 1960s it was entombed in ice, but as the climate warms it will likely emerge and become an environmental threat.

Responsibility for the former US installations was formally transferred from Washington to Copenhagen starting in 1951 as part of a defence agreement between the two countries. The wording of the resolution, debated by Inatsisartut, the national assembly, on October 12, and expected to be passed during a November 9 vote, makes it clear that Nuuk believes the Danes have shirked their responsibility to clean up the pollution.

[Thaw could release Cold War-era U.S. toxic waste buried under Greenland’s ice]

“Denmark is under an obligation to protect the Greenlandic people as an indigenous people,” Qujaukitsoq wrote. “This also involves, among other things, our right to our natural resources in connection with our lands, as well as our right to own and possess the lands that we have traditionally controlled.”

He also criticized the U.S. military for its operations in Greenland, which included the resettlement of a settlement to make room for Thule Air base, in the northern part of the country, and the 1968 crash-landing there of a B-52 bomber carrying nuclear bombs.

“Forced relocations, radioactive pollution in the open country, continued spreading of PCBs, oil and radioactive wastewater pollution in Greenland can no longer be accepted,” he wrote.

[Greenland calls for clean-up of toxic U.S. Cold War bases]

The move to force Denmark to clean up the sites comes after Mala Høy Kúko, Greenland’s environment minister, raised the issue with his Danish counterpart in August.

During a trip to Bluie East Two (known locally as Ikateq), a disused American airfield containing an estimated 100,000 rusting oil barrels, Esben Lunde Larsen, the Danish environment minister, said Copenhagen would work to ensure that Greenland was not used as “the world’s dustbin.”

Speaking to Inatsisartut earlier this month, Kúko, told lawmakers the process was “on-going.”

“We hope something will come of the discussions we have with the Danish government when we continue our dialogue this spring,” he said.