According to an agreement signed by Denmark's Environment Minister Esben Lunde Larsen and the chairman of the Greenlandic government, Kim Kielsen, Copenhagen will earmark DKK 180 million ($29 million) over the course of six years for the cleanup of the toxic waste from the US military bases established at the height of the Cold War with acceptance from Denmark.
"It has been Greenland's wish for many years to clean up the former US activities. I am pleased that the government has now assumed responsibility and taken the initiative, so that we can work together to carry out the cleanup over the coming years," Kim Kielsen told Danish Radio.
Danish money will be spent on removing rusty oil barrels and purging chemical waste from 680 sites. A working group will be established to look at the exact measures needed for the cleanup. The discussion about the responsibility for the tidying measures has lingered for many years, prompting a Greenlandic drive for more independence from Copenhagen.
"It is important and carries with it responsibility," Esben Lunde Larsen said, declining to speculate why the US itself did not invest in the project. "This is an agreement between the Danish and Greenlandic authorities. In this agreement, we do not go beyond that," he explained.
Historian Kristian Hvidtfeldt from Aarhus University said that Denmark has long been expected to shoulder the responsibility.
"Greenland has always claimed Denmark to be responsible for the cleanup, because it was Denmark, which ultimately allowed the Americans to establish military facilities in Greenland under NATO's defense strategy. The Greenlanders have exerted pressure, but the Danes have been a little reluctant," he explained. According to Hvidtfeldt, the US has for many years stated that it did not want to do anything about the cleanup, and therefore the buck stopped with Denmark.
However, Hvidtfeldt ventured that the massive $29 million investment will be inadequate.
"It is not sufficient in terms of a total cleanup after the American presence, for the sole reason that we simply do not know the exact amount of waste," Hvidtfeldt said.
While the list of the sites slated for purging includes abandoned runways, dilapidated buildings and vehicle debris at Marraq south of the Greenlandic capital Nuuk and Ikkatteq at Tasiilaq, it does not cover the sites that are still in use, such as the Thule Airbase in northern Greenland.
Nor is Camp Century, the most divisive US base under the inland ice featured in the cleanup agreement. Dating back to the late 1950s, Camp Century was a clandestine military base located some 250 kilometers from Thule. Codenamed Project Iceworm, the camp was intended to station 200 soldiers, a railway and even a nuclear missile facility. However, it was never fully implemented due to moving ice and was effectively abandoned in 1969 after a perfunctory cleanup.
Today, the extent of the pollution is still being estimated, as rising temperatures in the Arctic are feared will trigger a massive leak of toxic waste into the pristine Greenlandic snowscape.