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Greenland Is Very Mad About the Toxic Waste the US Left Buried Under Its Ice

Climate change threatens to melt the ice and expose chemicals and radioactive material.

by Kate Lunau
Oct 14 2016, 3:37pm

Workers test one of a polar research station's escape hatches, Camp Century, Greenland. Image: W. Robert Moore/National Geographic/Getty Images

Greenland isn't happy about being treated as a dumping ground for abandoned US military bases established at the height of the Cold War—and in a newspaper editorial, it's calling on Denmark to deal with the mess left behind by the Americans, since the Danish long ago took responsibility for them. This editorial notes that, after decades, Greenland is "losing its patience."

One of the abandoned bases, called Camp Century, is full of nasty chemicals and some radioactive material, as Motherboard previously reported.

At Camp Century, which was built in 1959, soldiers called "Iceworms" practiced deployment of missiles against Russia and literally lived inside the ice. When the US decommissioned the base in the 1960s, the military left basically everything behind, thinking that its waste would stay locked up in the Greenland ice sheet forever.

Well, climate change has made that unlikely. Melting ice threatens to expose all kinds of toxic debris in decades to come, and Greenland wants it cleaned up, now.

Read More: These Insane Photos Show How An Abandoned Air Force Base Is Polluting Greenland

In an editorial published in Berlingske on Thursday, Greenland's Minister of Foreign Affairs Vittus Qujaukitsoq rails against the US for leaving behind its waste—and against the Danish for not doing more about it. (Camp Century and other bases were established through a legal treaty between Denmark and the US, because Greenland was a Danish colony back then.)

Greenland's ice sheet and coasts conceal "the widespread contamination left by the Americans from their military installations in our country over 75 years," says the article, according to Google Translate. People who live nearby rely on hunting and fishing, it says, and have to worry about their health and the environment because of this.

"I think it's very understandable that the Greenland government wants to get some answers on who's accountable, and who will ultimately bear financial cost of any potential remediation," said Jeff Colgan, a professor of political science at Brown University and an author of the paper that highlighted the problem with Camp Century.

"At the same time, we expect it's a problem that will take decades to resurface," he told me. "The immediate focus should be monitoring and research."

We'll see more of these disputes arising because of climate change. A melting Arctic will expose all kinds of stuff that people once thought would stay buried.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Jeff Colgan as a history professor. In fact he is a professor of political science.