Update: On January 11, 2018, Denmark announced that it would contribute 180 million kroner ($29 million U.S.) over six years to begin cleaning up some of the abandoned military bases on Greenland, though experts warned that the amount was unlikely to be enough to finish the job.
The locals call the thousands of orange rusted barrels “American flowers.” From afar on a sunny day, the 70-year-old remnants littered across the island of Ikateq in Greenland look like fields of marigolds instead of toxic reminders of World War II.
The United States Air Force established a base on Ikateq called Bluie East Two in 1941, under an agreement between the U.S. and Denmark, the latter of which had claimed Greenland in the early 18th century. The base was abandoned after the war in 1947.
But the U.S. military left behind crumbling asbestos-ridden buildings, countless barrels filled with leaded aviation fuel, corroding metal trucks, and possibly even hundreds of cases of undetonated dynamite, according to an account of a man who says he served at the base.
Bases Left Behind
Bluie East Two is just one of more than 30 abandoned U.S. military bases in Greenland dating from World War II or the Cold War, said Inuuteq Holm Olsen, the Greenland representative at the U.S. Embassy of Denmark.
For the people that live in Greenland, the rotting bases are a bitter reminder of an agreement they didn’t have a say in—Denmark didn’t grant Greenland partial autonomy until 1979—and a potential hazard to their way of life. Many Greenlanders live off hunting and fishing, and there’s no way of knowing what has been polluted, said Olsen. (Read more about new technology that lets scientists look underneath Greenland's massive ice sheet.)
“They are disgusted, to say the least,” he said. “We all try to teach children that you shouldn’t litter and be careful of what you put into the environment.”
Weeding the American Flowers
American photographer Ken Bower traveled to Ikateq in 2014 and 2015 after hearing about the base from friends in Iceland and decided to photograph the debris.
“It was incredibly shocking to see just how much of it is there and that it’s still there 70-odd years later,” he said.
As his pictures became popular on the Internet in 2016, Bower created an online petition to ask the United States to clean up Bluie East Two. To date, the petition has received more than 36,000 supporters.
“I care about the environment here in my country,” one supporter wrote. “Clean up your dirty mess, USA.”
While the petition didn’t reach the 100,000 signatures required to reach the White House, it did reach the Danish Parliament in June. Danish legislators signed a letter of intent to pay Greenland 150 million krone—or $23 million— over five years to clean up some of the old U.S. military bases.
“It’s positive in itself that Denmark has taken responsibility for this,” said Olsen.
However, an official agreement still has to be signed and negotiated, and the involvement of the United States in the cleanup process is still an outstanding issue, he said.
Red, White, and Bluie
A clause in the original agreement that allowed the U.S. to build military bases in Greenland may exempt it from any responsibility in the cleanup. Article 11 of the agreement states that equipment and facilities may be disposed of in Greenland by the United States government after consultation with the Danish authorities.
Greenland has already requested assistance from the United States at Camp Century, a nuclear research center during the Cold War that housed a program intended to build a network of nuclear missile launch sites under ice sheets. New research suggests that climate change and melting ice could release waste, including toxic PCBs, that was stored at the camp. (Read: "Shocking" Greenland Ice Melt: Global Warming or Just Heat Wave?)
In October, former Greenland Foreign Minister Vittus Qujaukitsoq wrote a letter published in the Danish newspaper Berlingske alleging that Greenland has been asking Denmark since 2014 to provide information on how this pollution could impact the health and safety of future generations of local people. According to Qujaukitsoq, they have not received any answers.
It’s possible that the waste left on Bluie East Two could also have harmful health and environmental effects, but it’s difficult to know for sure because it’s not being researched or monitored, said Olsen.
When reached for comment, representatives from both the Air Force and State Department said they had no information on any abandoned military bases in Greenland.
However, other countries have begun to take note of the bases. Just last year, a Chinese mining company offered to buy an abandoned naval base that was once known as Bluie West Seven, but Denmark turned down the offer in order to preserve their relationship with the United States.
As for the future of Bluie East Two, only time will tell.
“There are so many uncertainties and unanswered questions,” said Olsen.
This story was first published on July 25, 2017, and updated on January 11, 2018, with news of the cleanup funds.