Aircraft are being warned to steer clear of an area near Canada's northerly Ellesmere Island where the remains of a modified Russian ballistic missile are set to crash into the Arctic this weekend – space debris that may be laden with highly toxic rocket fuel.
Critics are asking who will take responsibility for cleaning up a sensitive maritime ecosystem of what could be extremely poisonous hydrazine from a missile that the Russians will use to boost a satellite into orbit from Plesetsk Cosmodrome, 800 kilometres north of Moscow.
The second stage of this used missile is expected to plummet into Baffin Bay, just east of Ellesmere Island. It's within Canada's exclusive economic zone where it has jurisdiction over protecting the marine environment.
University of British Columbia professor Michael Byers said Russia should not be allowed to use Canada as a toxic waste dump.
Nav Canada has issued a notice warning pilots to avoid a "temporary danger area" for 26 hours this weekend, starting on Saturday. The junked Russian rocket, which commonly uses hydrazine, may carry hundreds of litres of unused fuel, said Prof. Byers, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law.
He said booster rockets tend to end up with leftover propellant "because they are shut down by onboard computers once the desired speed and altitude are achieved."
Alexander Darchiev, Russia's ambassador to Canada, could not be reached for comment, his embassy in Ottawa said, because he was on a tour of the Canadian Arctic with other foreign diplomats sponsored by the federal department of Global Affairs.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Tony Clement said the Russian government should pay for tracking and cleanup of any waste.
"It has nothing to do with Canada, so why should we be stuck with the bill?" Mr. Clement said.
He said he doesn't want to see Canada acting "deferential to the Russians" on the missile debris.
The Canadian government wasn't able to immediately respond when asked about the debris and cleanup.
Prof. Byers said Baffin Bay off Ellesmere Island is a diverse marine environment.
"Space debris comes all the time. If it was just a chunk of metal it wouldn't be a problem," he said. "The twist here is this is a hydrazine-fuelled rocket and this is really toxic stuff."
He said the use of hydrazine has devastated the environment around Baikonur, Kazakhstan, the world's most heavily used launch site, and said Canada should be pushing for a global ban on the use of hydrazine as a rocket propellant.
In 2005, the Canadian government dismissed concerns over a crash of a rocket booster with hydrazine, saying the fuel would remain in tanks when the debris sank to the sea floor, Prof. Byers said.
The most high-profile controversy over Russian space debris in Canada occurred nearly 40 years ago.
The recovery and cleanup of radioactive debris from Russia's nuclear-powered Cosmos 954 satellite, which scattered across the Northwest Territories when it crashed Jan. 24, 1978, cost taxpayers $9-million.
In 1983, another Russian satellite, Cosmos 1402, malfunctioned, but its nuclear reactor was destroyed by a fail-safe mechanism before re-entry. In 1987, a 14-centimetre piece of metal from a Soviet rocket landed in the backyard of a Brantford, Ont., home.