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Canada Inuit angered by Russian rocket splashdown in the Arctic

In this Dec. 24, 1997 file photo, soldiers prepare to destroy a ballistic SS-19 missile in the yard of the largest former Soviet military rocket base in Vakulenchuk, Ukraine. Inuit in two countries are angry over Russian plans to drop a rocket stage potentially carrying highly toxic fuel into some of the most productive waters in the Arctic.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Russia has angered Inuit in two countries and raised sovereignty concerns over its plans to drop part of a rocket potentially carrying highly toxic fuel into some of the most productive waters of the Canadian Arctic.

"This rocket will not be falling into no-man's land," said Okalik Eegeesiak of the Inuit Circumpolar Commission.

"This is a vital body of water that is integral to the food supply of Inuit communities in Greenland and Canada. Inuit live here, Inuit use the animals in these waters to feed our families.

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"This is our home."

On Saturday, a stage of a Russian satellite-launching rocket is expected to fall into Baffin Bay between Ellesmere Island and Greenland outside Canadian territorial waters, but within seas over which Canada has economic control.

The area is heavily hunted and travelled by Inuit from nearly a dozen communities in Canada and Greenland. It is within the North Water Polynya, a large area of ocean that stays relatively ice free all year, and is considered the most biologically productive ecosystem north of the Arctic Circle.

"We hunt belugas, seals, fish, birds — it's such a rich area of different kinds of animals that we eat," Eegeesiak said. "That's why it's so important to us."

The region is considered so crucial that Inuit in Canada and Greenland have formed a commission to discuss how to manage it. Russia's plan ignores those interests, said Eegeesiak.

"Just because there are no people there doesn't mean it's no-man's-land. Inuit depend on the area."

The commission is preparing a formal protest to Russia.

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A spokesman for the Russian embassy has said that all the fuel should be burned up by the time it splashes down.

But published reports from experts on the Russian space program suggest that it's normal for about 10 per cent of the fuel in the main stage to remain unburned. A 2005 report on a failed launch of the same type of rocket suggested there was still fuel in the main stage after it was supposed to have separated.

Gary Stern, an Arctic contaminant specialist at the University of Manitoba, said the hydrazine fuel is highly toxic and is known to persist in water.

The fuel does degrade quickly and doesn't concentrate in animals up the food chain, so the one rocket may not have a large impact. But that doesn't make it a good idea, he said.

"It is a very, very productive area. You don't want anything going in there.

"(The Russians) should not be doing this under any circumstances but in particular they shouldn't be doing it in other countries' territories."

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Paul Crowley, head of the World Wildlife Fund's Arctic program, called it a violation of Canadian Arctic sovereignty.

"If Canada was launching a rocket and some of it was going to be landing in the Russian Federation, you can imagine what kind of reaction we'd have there. The government of Canada should be defending our territorial integrity."

The issue also came up in the Nunavut legislature on Thursday.

"It's toxic and hazardous and it shouldn't fall in Nunavut waters," said Joe Savikataaq, minister of Community and Government Services.

"If a ship was dumping hazardous waste, then they would be in trouble. Whether it's dumped from space or from the ocean, it's still hazardous material."

The Canadian government has said it has told Russia it wants more advance information about such launches. A spokesman said the government has urged Russia to keep its space debris out of Canadian lands or waters.

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