Polar Bear eco restoration

Restoring nature’s balance in Polar Bear Provincial Park

For Day 4 of Earth Week 2016, we want to share an amazing success story:

Ever heard of Polar Bear Provincial Park?

Few Ontarians will ever visit the 2.3 million hectares of protected land along Ontario’s only salt water coast. The park is home to the magnificent polar bear, as well as caribou, seals and the beluga whale.

Between 2011 and 2016, Polar Bear Provincial Park underwent the largest Environmental Remediation Project ever to be completed inside a protected area!

A scar on the landscape

Between the late 1950s and mid-1960s, several military sites were constructed within Polar Bear Provincial Park. These sites were occupied by military personnel and performed defensive radar detection.

Until they were abandoned.

Site 415 before clean-up

For decades, these cold war legacy sites — including several derelict contaminated buildings of steel and cement, abandoned vehicles and equipment, radio towers, and massive radar screens — disfigured Polar Bear’s landscape.

rusting drums
Scattered all around the main base camp, known as Site 415, were thousands of rusting drums, some empty, others still containing gasoline or oil.

In addition to being an eyesore on Polar Bear’s pristine wilderness, the Mid Canada Line sites were sources of chemical and physical hazards.

hazardous waste
There were buried garbage dumps, hazardous waste like asbestos, mercury and PCBs, and hundreds of tons of contaminated soils.

An at-risk ecosystem

Polar Bear landscape

Polar Bear Provincial Park protects landscapes of provincial, national, and international importance, including the world’s third-largest wetland. The park was named for its function as habitat for the southern-most population of polar bears in the world. 

Sow and cubs

In addition to the impressive bears, caribou and saltwater sea life, the park also plays host to millions of migratory birds, including herons, cranes, shorebirds, ducks, geese, and swans. Some breed within the park, while others use the park as a migration stop over on their way to the central Arctic.

Polar Bear Provincial Park contains five of Canada’s IBAs or Important Bird Areas. These are discrete sites that support specific groups of birds.

A key community resource

Polar Bear Provincial Park is also occupied by adjacent communities. The main base camp — Site 415 — is still regularly used for sustenance by nearby First Nations communities, including Attawapiskat, Peawanuk and Fort Severn.

Community meeting

Centuries-old traditions of hunting, gathering and traditional knowledge transfer still continues there today. Collaboration with these communities was crucial in developing and completing the project.

Who helped?

Site 451 signStaff from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, with support from the federal Department of National Defense Canada, led this massive remediation project.

A workforce hired from local communities put in 27,000 hours. Over 1,830 hours of classroom and on-the-job training was provided to community members.

worker removing rusty drums

A job well done

Now, instead of ruins and debris strewn across the landscape, the site is more natural and has — as much as possible — been returned to something similar to what it would have originally looked like.

Site 415 after restoration

On Site 415, the Mid Canada Line team cleaned up:

  • 7,070 drums (gathered, cleaned and crushed)
  • 30,000 litres of free product
  • 471 m3 of Tier 1 materials (mostly asbestos)
  • 1,640 litres of PCB liquids
  • 3,970 tonnes of low-level PCB contaminated soils
  • 292 metric tonnes of PCB hazardous soils and debris
staff received awards
Ontario Parks staff received the Ontario Parks Board Ecological Integrity Award for their work restoring Polar Bear Provincial Park.

As a member of the Mid Canada Line Project Team, we are very proud of the end result: Polar Bear Provincial Park is a cleaner, safer park.