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16 Mar, 2009 06:36

America’s toxic legacy

The United States has long been criticised for its military presence in other countries. Military bases in the world's most far-flung regions are still causing controversy, such as in Greenland.

The Arctic country was once an American launching pad during the Cold War but it has left a terrible environmental legacy,

Debris from a Cold War past serves as a reminder of this small town's former identity, such as the Sondrestrom US Air Force base. Runways once built for heavy bombers now accommodate regular passenger planes.

In another case, high radiation levels at the Thule Air Base on the Dundas Peninsula in the north of Greenland are still detected, following the crash in 1968 of a B-52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs.

Refusal by the US to clean up its former military bases continues to be a source of very real tension between the leaders of the ethnic Inuit population, their former colonial masters here in Copenhagen, and the Pentagon.

Greenland is dotted with former American bases, and an active one still remains in Thule.

The island served as an important steppingstone to Europe in the fight against Nazi Germany and then later as a Cold War surveillance centre against the Soviet Union.

The question now is whether the US should foot the clean-up bill for its former bases?

As a protectorate of Denmark, the initial agreement to station operations in Greenland was drawn up by Washington and Copenhagen.

“In 1951, I don’t think the word environment was actually used ever and so the '51 agreement does not contain any mention of environmental issues. You can’t hold people responsible for something you once told them they were not responsible for and then come back ten years after and tell them they’re responsible for that and anything that has happened during the ten years you told them they were not responsible,” said Mikaela Engell, Senior Arctic official of Denmark, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In 2000, revelations that one of the H-bombs in Thule was never recovered lead to a public outcry.

Workers at the site say they're suffering from serious medical problems due to a lack of protective clothing.

The US says it is not their problem. They handed the site over to Greenlandic control six years ago.

“The US had acted in accordance with this treaty, which reflected a shared burden with our host nation for our contribution for defense of the free world. Any contamination of the sites was the result of ‘normal’ practices in place at the time,” said Cheryl Irwin, spokeswoman for the US Defense Department (Christian Science Monitor)

The human cost still being counted.

An entire village of ethnic Inuits was forced from their homes in 1953 to make way for Thule’s expansion.

For decades, former villagers accused Danish authorities of lying – claiming they’d consented to the relocation.

“Their rights were violated and they never got any compensation so more than 50 years after Supreme Court of Denmark awarded them a small amount of money,” said Aqqaluk Lynge, Chairman of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

It remains a highly sensitive issue for the island, which voted for greater self-rule in a recent referendum.

“It’s another example of decisions being taken over our heads …those responsible must now step up and sort out the mess they left behind,” said Greenland Prime Minister Hans Enoksen.

It is hoped that removing the remnants of a rusting wartime legacy will clear the way for a better, brighter future.