One of the crown jewels in the federal government's Arctic strategy is mired in a slow-moving environmental clean-up and the threat of legal action, federal documents reveal.
The deep-water port at Nanisivik, Nunavut, remains under the control of the federal fisheries department, six years after Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced with much fanfare the establishment of a naval refuelling station high in the northern archipelago.
A private company — Breakwater Resources Ltd., owned by Nyrstar N.V., which operated a now-defunct zinc mine in the region — has yet to complete an environmental clean-up of a fuel tank farm, despite four years of pressure from the military.
Remediation of the property, which is Crown land, is necessary before the Department of National Defence can take possession.
"The property is still under the administration of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans [and] the timing of the transfer will be determined in the near future," said defence spokesman Maj. Andre Salloum, in an email.
"Nyrstar N.V. has not completed the remediation."
Even so, the defence department was recently required to submit a new environmental impact assessment to the territorial government in Nunavut.
Federal documents show defence officials have long been concerned about what it sees as foot-dragging on the part of the company, noting that no remediation work took place at all during the summer construction season in 2009.
"Delays by the company to complete the work is a major risk to the project schedule and cost," said a briefing note prepared for former defence minister Peter MacKay in the fall of that year.
The military has made it clear it's not interested in the fuel tank farm that was part of the mining property and it wants the old structures cleared away.
But the company has lobbied National Defence to reconsider the decision, something officials have been dead-set against because it means the department "would assume responsibility and liability" for the clean up.
"This will be a costly exercise for the federal government," said the Oct. 9, 2009 briefing note, recently released under access-to-information legislation.
Since then, the fisheries department has sent legal notification to the company to remind it of its obligation.
The cost of the program has also risen to $116 million from the original $100 million estimate, according to documents associated with the latest federal budget.
The port is meant to accommodate the Conservative government's plan to construct six-to-eight light icebreakers — or Arctic patrol ships — to assert the country's sovereignty in the North.
Like the Nanisivik facility, the ships are behind schedule and years from seeing service.
By contrast, the Russians have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into reviving as many as 10 Arctic outposts to serve as search-and-rescue bases along their northern sea route, which runs along the top of the Asian continent. Ports are also being upgraded.
Faced with all that activity on the other side of the North Pole, a defence analyst said the Canadian government needs to get its act together.
"The Russians have 10 bases, you would hope we could at least get one going," said Rob Huebert, an Arctic expert.
However, he added that officials are right to insist the company complete the remediation because it would be a "horrendously expensive exercise" if the federal government took over.
On the political side, a recently released analysis of the federal government's northern strategy, penned by defence scientists, shows Inuit leaders in Nunavut have been miffed about the project.
An April 2012 Defence Science Advisory report says Arctic Bay Hamlet Council Nanisivik community leaders don't feel they've been consulted enough and believed that the project was going to be bigger with more commercial aspects than has turned out.