Pinetree Radar Base: Environmental Concerns

This page is from a heritage partnered project. It was written in 1998 by students from Stephenville Integrated High School and edited by their teachers. It has not been vetted by the heritage website's academic editor.

In 1941 the United States Air Force established a military base in Stephenville, Newfoundland. This base was operational for twenty-four years. During that time the Americans constructed underground storage tanks and pipelines, with the sole intention of storing fuel. In addition to this, several buildings were constructed for the storage and handling of various chemicals and hazardous products. As a direct result of the Earnest Harmon Air Force Base, there are significant environmental concerns associated with Stephenville and the surrounding areas.

Assessing Military Remains

Recently an environmental audit and assessment of the area has been undertaken by the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation to determine what type of clean up is required. The audit included extensive surveys and research of abandoned fuel lines, underground storage tanks, abandoned buildings and their environmental and health risks. Water seeping out of the hillside, downslope from the former Pinetree radar base.

Pinetree Radar Base
Water seeping out of the hillside, downslope from the former Pinetree radar base.

Pipe Line Concerns

A major area of concern, which was covered in-depth by this study was the American infrastructure of underground fuel lines in the Stephenville(Harmon) industrial area. It had been assumed that these pipelines had been drained in 1966 when the Americans closed the base. However, several incidents have occurred which prove they still contain oil and gas. In 1993, for example, during the construction of the Regional Aquatic Centre, a construction team hit and broke a gas pipe. Gas began to seep into the ground but no effort was made to clean up the spill, since no information of the pipes existed. It has been reported that due to the acidic soil in Newfoundland, the lifespan of these pipes is fifteen to twenty-five years. Most of these pipes however, have been around at least forty years. Radiologic surveys have been performed to confirm the location of the pipes and the amount of fuel they contain. The results of the survey identified six full lines, all of which were confirmed full of liquid. Testing of the liquids tell us the pipes contain a mixture of light fuel, J-P4 fuel, diesel oil, AVGAS, and diesel fuel.Should this type of spill occur in Stephenville which is connected via the same pipelines, the results could be disastrous due to the high risk of fire and explosion.

Fuel Lines
Rusted pipes and valves sticking out of a deteriorating concrete base, near the perimeter of Stephenville Airport

Many people feel the audit did an excellent job on the area it studied, but it did not study the dumpsites left by the Americans. Nineteen former dumpsites left by the Americans have been located in the area, including the major dumpsite in the Igloo Road and heavy equipment school area. According to Mayor Stein, these dumps drain into the water supply catchment areas and it's basically a time bomb ready to go off. Some time during the next year, the town intends to develop an artesian well system for the citizens of Stephenville. Although the dumps will no longer be a risk to our water supply, they must still be cleaned-up. Both Igloo Road and the heavy equipment school are believed to be massive dumps. No one knows for sure what has been dumped there, but there are many stories circulating. One such story states that chemicals, vehicles with oil and gas, 45 gallon drums and dry cleaning fluids have been dumped there. This is obviously an area which requires further testing.

Pinetree Equipment
Equipment from the Pinetree radar base, pushed into the bushes beside the road on Table Mountain.

The Legacy of the Military Base

As a strategic refuelling site, large quantities of various fuels were stored on the base. One hundred and ten underground storage tanks remain active. They are owned by several companies including Abitibi Consolidated. Research done on the inactive tanks indicates a total measured quantity of 81,000 litres of product. This product consists of 16% light fuel and 84% diesel fuel. As well free product has been identified on the water table around several of these tanks.

Another legacy of the base was a number of abandoned buildings vacated by the Americans. Two such buildings are the Brewery building and the Roundhouse. The NLHC has torn down the brewery which was used as an automotive garage. This building is believed to be a site of all sorts of toxic dumping, which is not only an environmental hazard, but a health risk. The Roundhouse was located between Massachusetts and Illinois drive. It is where the Americans turned their train around, using tracks.

The Roundhouse was slated for demolition, but many people felt tests should be performed first. The building has been a topic of controversy as it has been argued by some residents that it once housed Agent Orange. Agent Orange has been linked to birth defects, rare cancers and other illnesses. It is a chemical used by the Americans to keep alders from growing onto the railroad tracks. It is suspected that the agent orange waste was dumped near the roundhouse. Several people who worked in this building have died of cancer and their families want answers. The American government pays compensation to ex-servicemen and their families, who were exposed to the chemicals and experienced a wide variety of illnesses. Many people say its becoming suspicious why this is the first building to be torn down.

It has been thirty-two years since the Americans left Stephenville and several people are wondering why the clean up took so long to get underway. Many people feel the main reason for the clean up of Stephenville and the surrounding area is the discovery made in Argentia. Since the publication of the AGRA study, most of the storage tanks have been emptied, the pipelines drained, both the brewery and roundhouse have been torn down, and further study is planned for the dumpsites.

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