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The abandoned buildings are still standing but the windows have long been smashed. In the frigid cavernous interiors, the wind scatters pads of deadly asbestos lying on the chipped concrete floor.

Outside, lie rusting hulks that were once diggers and trucks, their paint peeling and toxic chemicals from their batteries and ancient radiators seeping into the fragile permafrost.

Nearby, stands a small mountain of rusted metal drums. Locals say there are as many as 10,000 of them scattered throughout the area and hundreds more lie at the bottom of a small pond nearby.

This is Winisk -- a former Royal Canadian Air Force radar base nestled on the edge of Northern Ontario's Polar Bear Provincial Park on Hudson Bay, one of the most pristine wilderness areas left on earth.

Abandoned by the military 40 years ago, this toxic wasteland has been left to rot, its chemicals leaking into the ground, as federal and provincial authorities bicker over who should pay for a cleanup.

The ruins of the base are not only unsightly, they are also potentially lethal.

Locals say the pollutants have seeped into the water table and contaminated the animals that live in the area -- polar bears, caribou and many rare species of birds.

Several members of the Winisk First Nation, who grew up near the base and return to the area to hunt each spring and autumn, report an increasing incidence of lung diseases. They believe their problems are the result of prolonged exposure to asbestos used for fire-proofing in the walls of the buildings and cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) used in transformers and radars.

Whatever the science -- and no studies have been carried out to determine the effect of the pollution on the health of the natives here -- the Winisk First Nation is furious with federal authorities.

They say that while the government has been embarrassed by revelations that they were providing contaminated water to the reserve at Kashechewan, there are a plethora of other abuses in the area that have been covered up or ignored.

George Hunter, a former chief of the Winisk First Nation who grew up on the far bank of the small estuary before his community was flooded and relocated upstream in 1986, still hunts regularly in this area.

"If this had been in the south, there would have been protests," he said. "There's no way this could have lasted 40 years. "It seems the military has all the engineers it wants when it comes to putting something up but none for cleaning up the mess they leave behind."

The military complex at Winisk was built in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War as part of the Mid Canada Line -- a lattice of listening stations designed to warn of an attack on North America by Soviet aircraft. Dozens more bases were built across northern Canada, stretching from British Columbia to Newfoundland. The total cost at the time amounted to more than $220-million. Within a few years, technological improvements meant the entire network had to be scrapped.

In 1964 and 1965, the Department of National Defence closed down the bases and began building the Pinetree Line, another early warning system further to the south.

Many of the Mid Canada Line bases were later cleaned up after agreements between the military and the provinces.

But at Winisk and several other bases at the far reaches of Northern Ontario and hundreds of kilometres from the nearest large town or asphalt road, no deal was ever struck and to this day no cleanup operation has been mounted.

Today what is left of the Winisk radar base, 1,300 kilometres north of Toronto, is only accessible by small boat, snowmobile or helicopter.

The indifference displayed by the military when they departed four decades ago is in clear evidence.

Near the mile-long runway -- on which locals say maintenance crews poured diesel to keep down the dust in the summer months -- more than a dozen broken and abandoned trucks and diggers dating back to the 1950s and 1960s lie.

One has rusty pedals, broken glass and a smashed dashboard. Another has a fading emblem, "Royal Canadian Air Force" written on the side, and the serial number 538B45-1013. Nearby, three car batteries are leaking their contents.

In the hangar, patches of asbestos fibre lie on the floor. In some of the interior rooms, the ceilings have collapsed, exposing wads of insulation.

"We used to call this place the land of berry-picking," Mr. Hunter said sadly as he stood on top of a huge pile of rusting barrels. "We can't even drink the water -- we don't know what's in it. The ponds look good but you jump in them and your hair becomes as stiff as wire."

Even this depressing vista may not represent the full scale of the ecological disaster at Winisk.

Natives who worked at the site tell how work crews were ordered by the military to dig huge pits and dump machinery they no longer needed inside. Then the pits were covered over.

Mike Peechapman, 75, who worked at the base as a manual labourer, said: "When the military left, they buried furniture, bed frames, new tools and even whole trucks. They also buried lots of fuel drums."

Seventy-year-old Mike Hunter, George Hunter's father, worked at the base as a bus driver. "In the autumn of 1958, they buried all their construction vehicles there," he said. "As for all the pesticides that were kept there, we never found out what happened to them. We're not only talking about PCBs, but also asbestos, lead, DDT and other chemicals. When we asked about it, they said it was top secret."

Winisk is not the only former radar base in Northern Ontario with severe ecological problems. Base 415 at Cape Henrietta Maria, deep in the Polar Bear Provincial Park, was also part of the Mid Canada Line.

An environmental study commissioned in the 1990s by the Mushkegowuk Council, an umbrella group for many of the native groups in the area, found asbestos, PCBs and other pollutants at the site. The study also found evidence that a large above-ground storage tank was still leaking diesel fuel into the tundra.

Another study shows that a third former site, known as 06 and located between Moosonee and Cochrane, is also badly contaminated.

In the late 1990s, the Department of National Defence even commissioned its own report into the ecological damage at the former bases, which was carried out by the environmental services group, an arm of the military. The study, which has been seen by The Globe and Mail, concluded that Winisk, Cape Henrietta Maria and several other bases were contaminated and needed to be cleaned up.

Among the problems itemized were the presence of PCBs, asbestos, pesticides and heavy metals.

"Contaminants must be prevented from further migration into the food chain," the report concluded.

Even so, and despite requests from native groups, the Department of National Defence refused to accept any responsibility for the toxic legacy at Winisk or the other bases. It argued that the land on which the bases were built belonged to the province.

To date, the only former Mid Canada Line base in the area that has been cleaned up was at Fort Albany, a reserve near Kashechewan on James Bay.

In 2001, the province, failing to reach agreement with Ottawa, went ahead unilaterally with a cleanup of the site at a cost of $14-million.

Michael Cartan, a regional official with the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources, said: "There was an urgent need to act because this site was right in the community." The cleanup at Fort Albany coincided with a study carried out between 1999 and 2001 on the reserve by Evert Nieboer of the Department of Biochemistry at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Published by Health Canada, the report concluded that almost all the local people had unnaturally high levels of PCBs and DDT derivatives in their blood.

The province has since stepped up efforts to persuade Ottawa to meet some of the estimated $60-million cost of cleaning up all the former Mid Canada Line bases in Northern Ontario.

In March, David Ramsay, Ontario's Minister for Natural Resources, wrote to the federal government, requesting a new meeting to discuss the cleanup of the old radar sites. For months, there was no reply, but finally in October -- possibly spurred into action by the scandal at Kashechewan -- federal officials agreed to a Nov. 1 meeting in Toronto with their provincial counterparts.

Mr. Ramsay said after the meeting that he hoped to have an answer from federal authorities during the next eight weeks.

Lisa Brooks, a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence contacted last week, said that consultations are ongoing but could give no timetable for an outcome. "More discussions will be needed before a decision can be made," she said.

For some of the elders at the Winisk First Nation, a cleanup, even if it comes soon, may be too late.

Mike Hunter, who spent years working at the site and has returned to the area each spring and autumn to go hunting, has ever-worsening asthma.

Mr. Peechapman can only breathe with the frequent help of an inhaler. His wife Elizabeth, 73, who worked as a cook at the site, has spent the past 15 months lying in a hospital bed in Moose Factory, kept alive only by oxygen.

Mr. Peechapman said: "I went to see my wife two weeks ago. She's near the end now, always dozing off. The doctors say they can't help her any more.

"I used to be so proud and happy with my job there. But we never knew about the contamination. We never knew it would come to this."