The world's southernmost population of polar bears now has a much cleaner home.

The largest ecological restoration project in Ontario’s history was recently completed in Polar Bear Provincial Park, a relatively unknown gem that's located 1,400 km north of Toronto and only accessible by air.

The remediation project launched in 2011. The goal was to return the land to as natural a state as possible.

Four years and 45,000 hours later, 81 community members removed:

  • 7,070 empty drums
  • 1,640 litres of PCB liquids
  • 292 metric tonnes of PCB hazardous soils and debris
  • 3,970 tonnes of low-level PCB contaminated soils
  • 10 petroleum, oil, lubricant tanks
  • 2 buried septic tanks

“The people who worked on the project have a great sense of accomplishment,” said Heather Pridham, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. “This is a project where we can see tangible results in the Park restoration from years of hard work.”

Polar Bear Provincial Park is one of 334 regulated provincial parks in Ontario. The park was established in 1970 to protect subarctic and low arctic habitats, but, until now, the 2.3 million hectare landscape—the third largest wetland in the world—was dominated by contaminated steel and cement buildings, abandoned machinery and radio towers leftover from the site’s Cold War history.

In the late ’50s and ’60s, a number of military radar sites collectively known as the Mid Canada Line were built in Polar Bear Provincial Park. The sites were designed to detect a potential attack from the Soviet Union.

The radar stations were abandoned in 1965 when new technologies rendered the systems obsolete.

The wilderness-class park gets its name from the polar bears that live there, but caribou, seals, beluga whales and millions of migratory birds also call the park home. (Wilderness-class parks are large, intact areas of land where the natural environment is mostly left alone by humans.)

In addition to the cleanup, an environmental protection plan has been put in place to safeguard the park’s biodiversity.

“The Environmental Protection Plan was created by MNRF staff as an operational guide to ensure that while the work in the Park was going on, impacts on wildlife, species at risk, water systems and the land inside the park were minimized. The plan outlined various protocols such as wildlife encounters, nesting bird encounters and species at risk protocols,” said Pridham.

“All of these items stressed the ‘Light on the Land’ approach of making the least amount of impact as possible to the landscape.”

To learn more about protected areas in Ontario, read this report released by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.