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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Antarctic Dumping Grounds

Air Date: Week of

Researchers at the South Pole have been careless with their trash and sewage for decades. But a new international treaty is forcing the scientists to straighten up. Living on Earth's Terry Fitzpatrick visited the U.S. facilities in January of 1996 and this week we continue our encore presentation of his series of reports from the coldest continent.


CURWOOD: Antarctica is often described as the most pristine place on earth. But near many of the continent's research stations, Antarctica has become a garbage dump. For decades scientists have discarded tons of trash without regard for the fragile polar environment. Millions of gallons of raw sewage have been pumped into once pure waters near scientific bases. A new international treaty is now forcing researchers to clean up their mess, and the US Antarctica program, long considered one of the worst polluters, is gaining a new reputation as one of the cleanest. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick visited the US facilities in January of 1996. This week we continue our encore presentation of his series of reports.

(Sound of shoveling and digging)

FITZ PATRICK: Steve Zebrowski is digging into Antarctica's past. With hand drills and shovels he's excavating a site in the MacGregor Valley, a region of immense glaciers and towering peaks.

(Digging continues)

FITZ PATRICK: Mr. Zebrowski is not conducting scientific research. He's cleaning up a research camp abandoned by scientists nearly 20 years ago.

ZEBROWSKI: The last great unexplored open spot in the world, and it's just garbage.

(Digging continues)

FITZ PATRICK: Uncovering this camp is a bit like an archaeological dig. Beneath 6 feet of snow, workers find canvas tents and wooden sleds, even an old kitchen with a jar of mustard frozen hard as a rock.

ZEBROWSKI: Basically, everything was left here: the sleeping gear, some clothing, everything they used to live here, except all they took out was their rock samples and their personal bags. Everything else was left.

FITZ PATRICK: In all, 30 tons of survival gear was abandoned, along with (raps on a drum) 10,000 gallons of fuel.

MAN: A barrel!

ZEBROWSKI: Yeah, it's full. (Raps on drum)

FITZ PATRICK: Antarctica is littered with hundreds of sites like this: relics of an era when protecting the environment was not a priority. In many places, international expeditions have left a heavy footprint. The French, for instance, destroyed several bird colonies in the 1980s while building an aircraft landing strip. Argentina let sled dogs run wild through penguin rookeries, killing thousands of birds. And the US irradiated thousands of tons of soil in the 1960s while testing a nuclear power reactor. The most visible problem, though, is garbage. To clean-up worker David Zastrow, it's evidence of a short-sighted attitude researchers had about Antarctica.

ZASTROW: The place is so huge it can just absorb it all, and it just doesn't matter, but after a while it does. And it's what's starting to happen now. There's so much junk down there it's at least -- the way we feel, it's getting to be a little too much.

(Hauling and trucking sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Antarctic exploration generates staggering amounts of waste. Nowhere is that more evident than McMurdo Station, the sprawling US logistics base on the shores of the Ross Sea.

(Truck engines)

FITZ PATRICK: McMurdo is a bustling facility with the gritty feel of the old Wild West.

(A door slams, creaks)

FITZ PATRICK: Five million pounds of waste is generated here every year. More than a ton of trash per person.

(Slamming continues)

FITZ PATRICK: For decades, says Rick Kavitec of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, garbage here was dumped on hills and beaches, or on the ice pack that covers the sea each winter.

KAVITEC: They had a policy for many years of just putting the season's garbage out on the sea ice with the expectation and hope that when the sea ice broke out it would carry it away. And as often as not the sea ice would just melt in place and the stuff would just go to the bottom.

FITZ PATRICK: The ocean floor is now strewn with debris.

(Water bubbling, possibly through scuba gear)

FITZ PATRICK: Underwater videos shot by Dr. Kavitec depict an astonishing scene.

KAVITEC: There's hundreds of 55-gallon drums on the bottom and there's tractors and there's jeeps and there's track vehicles and there's airplanes all over the sea floor. It's a dump underwater in some places.

(Water bubbling continues)

FITZ PATRICK: No one's sure what's inside the submerged chemical barrels. But the level of hydrocarbons and PCBs in sediment here is comparable to big city harbors inside the United States. Scientists are debating whether they should conduct a clean-up. The pollution seems to be contained to the harbor at McMurdo Base. Disturbing the rusty barrels might cause it to spread.

(Trucks driving)

FITZ PATRICK: When it comes to managing the waste dumped on land, however, the US has undertaken a major clean-up. Mountains of debris have been shipped to Seattle for proper disposal, and newly-created trash is immediately packaged for transport back to the US.

(Horns blare)

FITZ PATRICK: This initiative began 5 years ago, funded by a $43 million appropriation from Congress. Eric Jergens directs the effort.

JERGENS: The US program, several years ago I think, pretty much had the reputation of being pretty slovenly, where a huge operation, you've seen through town that we look to be somewhat of a crude industrial complex. And in the past we behaved that way. Now I think, if you talk to the international community that has Antarc programs, they'll all tell you that the US has really set the tone for how to do things properly. Our reputation has changed significantly.

(Breaking brick or glass sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: The environmental initiative includes aggressive recycling. Buildings have a dozen different bins for people to segregate their trash; more than 60% of it is recycled.

TOMASI: My name's Paul Tomasi and I'm with Waste Management...

FITZ PATRICK: To ensure people obey the rules, everyone must attend a 30-minute waste management lecture when they arrive on the continent.

TOMASI: We do recycle glass here on Antarctica. We recycle unbroken, clear, green and brown jars and glasses. We ask that...

FITZ PATRICK: To Eric Jergens, this new emphasis is a natural step in the evolution of Antarctic exploration.

JERGENS: Early on it was sort of an expeditionary mentality, and survival was number one. Then we went to a phase where we weren't sure how long we would be here, sort of a colonial type of a mentality, if you will, and that's where McMurdo grew up. It was only until we decided that we were going to have a permanent presence here in Antarctica, where we've got to the community sense, and lived up to our stewardship of Antarctica.

FITZ PATRICK: However, this stewardship came as a result of pressure from environmental groups. In the 1980s, as international negotiators were discussing whether mining should be allowed in Antarctica, Greenpeace launched several investigative expeditions. The result: shocking photographs of garbage burning in huge open pits. According to Paul Bogart who directed the campaign, these photos demonstrated the need for strict environmental oversight of scientists.

BOGART: You can't hold these folks, take these folks necessarily at their word when they're talking about having the environment's best interests at heart. And so bringing that home to people really increased the pressure on countries to do something.

FITZ PATRICK: What the 26 nations that conduct Antarctic research did was approve a sweeping set of environmental guidelines in 1991. The Madrid Protocol bans mining for 50 years and requires a pack it in, pack it out approach for trash. The protocol was ratified by Congress last year. Environmentalists say it's weak in many areas and they wanted Congress to augment the treaty by extending US environmental laws to American activities in Antarctica. But they supported the protocol because the agency in charge of research, the National Science Foundation or the NSF, is showing a commitment to environmental protection. Beth Marks heads a coalition called the Antarctica Project.

MARKS: In getting the US to finally agree on a bill, we all had to concede that NSF has done a much better job recently in cleaning up the bases and in setting good environmental policy. And we have to just hope that these policies will continue even with a bill that is not as strident as we would have preferred.

(More trucking sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Although there's been progress in managing waste, several environmental problems remains. One of the most serious is oil.

(A motor revs up)

FITZ PATRICK: Nearly 200,000 gallons of aircraft fuel, known as JP8, has been spilled at McMurdo Station over the years.

(Motor sounds continue)

FITZ PATRICK: Research teams are now drilling holes to evaluate the extent of soil contamination.

(Motor sounds continue)

FITZ PATRICK: John Holbrook is from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

(A shovel digs)

HOLBROOK: One way to test the presence of JP8 is just to stick your nose close by and smell it. I don't detect very much at all, maybe a little bit.

FITZ PATRICK: I smell a little something.

HOLBROOK: Yeah, there's a little something there. But that is by no means strong. We've dug up soil samples and taken a whiff and it -- it almost reeks of the stuff in certain places.

(A high, whining sound)

FITZ PATRICK: The samples are analyzed in the McMurdo labs by Mark Tumio from the University of Alaska.

(High, whining sound continues)

FITZ PATRICK: The tests reveal several hot spots around the station. There's good news, though: the contamination hasn't spread very far.

TUMIO: It's not like they threw fuel on the ground. Fuel's a commodity here and you don't waste it, so, you know, spills were always accidental and they were controlled quickly. There's not much soil here, so there's not much depth to the soil. So that means what was spilled soaked up relatively, in a very small area, and tends to stay there. We don't get lots of rain to push stuff around; you don't have a lot of migration. So where it's spilled it's dirty, and not too far away it's still clean.

FITZ PATRICK: Still, more than 700 drums of soil await decontamination. Dr. Tumio is experimenting with oil eating bacteria to see if there's a natural way to conduct the clean-up. As those tests continue, researchers are also evaluating Antarctica's biggest ongoing source of pollution.

(A toilet flushes)

FITZ PATRICK: McMurdo Station discharges 66,000 gallons of raw sewage into the ocean every day. The prospect of building a $3 million sewage treatment plant is sparking debate. Some officials contend the sewage is quickly diluted in the ocean and treatment is unnecessary. But others point out that sewage is altering the natural mix of marine life. Clams and starfish have disappeared near the sewage outfall, replaced instead by worms and other organisms that tolerate human waste. In a small beachfront laboratory, Cathy Conlin from the Canadian Museum of Nature is examining tissue samples to see if sewage affects organisms beyond the McMurdo vicinity. It's a high tech procedure based on a simple truth: we are what we eat.

CONLIN: We all contain different isotopes of carbon and nitrogen and sulfur. And these proportions will differ according to what we eat. So if we eat all vegetables we'll have a certain proportion; if we eat all meat it will be a different proportion. Sewage has been demonstrated to have a certain, what you call, signature, a certain proportion. And if an organism is eating sewage, it will take up that proportion so it will register that signal.

FITZ PATRICK: Dr. Conlin hasn't collected enough samples to reach a conclusion yet. In fact, officials would not allow her to dive for specimens last year near the sewage outfall, because of dangerous levels of bacteria. In effect, it was Antarctica's first beach closure.

(Water lapping on shore)

FITZ PATRICK: The situation illustrates the choices officials must make when weighing the costs and benefits of working in a sensitive ecosystem. Eric Jergens, the environmental manager for McMurdo, maintains that some degree of ecological disruption is unavoidable.

JERGENS: I have my doubts that man can go anywhere without leaving some impact. that being true, then, what you've got to do is try to consciously decide what impact you're going to leave, and try to measure that impact and determine whether the impact is worth what you're doing there.

FITZ PATRICK: Scientists and environmentalists agree on one thing: researchers here are learning how the Earth works. And that is worth some measure of environmental impact. And even though a few researchers complain the environmental protections go too far, overall there's been a major change in attitude. Cornelius Sullivan is Director of
Polar Programs for the National Science Foundation.

SULLIVAN: We've changed human behavior in Antarctica to comply with good environmental practice, almost to the point that McMurdo, which otherwise looks like a mining town, is a place you'd have a hard time finding a cigarette butt or a scrap of paper. Kind of like going to Disneyland and seeing people sweep things up. Here they don't have to sweep them up; they never put them on the ground and if they find one they pick it up. That's remarkable to me: human behavior being changed because the people believe in what we're doing here in an environmental sense is remarkable.

(Wind whipping)

FITZ PATRICK: When you travel just a few minutes away from even the biggest of Antarctic bases now, you're hard pressed to detect any trace that people are nearby. The goal is to keep it that way. For Living on Earth this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.



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