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

Antarctica Series, Part 2: Clean-Up Time

Air Date: Week of

McMurdo Station, the main research and logistics base for U.S. Antarctic operations, has a summertime population of 2,000. Officials are working to clean up the base, which generates more than a ton of garbage per person every year, and discharges 66,000 gallons of raw sewage into the pristine Ross Sea every day.

The otherwise pristine waters around Antarctica have been a garbage and waste dumping ground for scientific researchers based there for years. Now researchers are working to clean-up their acts as they go. Terry FitzPatrick continues with his 4-part Antarctica series, having recently traveled there for Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: Congressional hearings are underway to ratify an international treaty to protect the environment of Antarctica. The pact bans mining and oil production on the continent for the next 50 years. It will also require scientists to remove their garbage. For decades research expeditions have dumped tons of waste throughout Antarctica. Even today, millions of gallons of raw sewage pour into pristine waters near science bases. The US has been one of the worst polluters, but is now working to clean up its operations. As part of his series from Antarctica, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports on the progress so far, and on the work that remain to be done.

(Sound of shoveling and digging)

FITZPATRICK: 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)

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

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

(Digging continues)

FITZPATRICK: 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.

ZABROWSKI: 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.

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

MAN: A barrel!

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

FITZPATRICK: 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 Zastro, it's evidence of a short-sighted attitude researchers had about Antarctica.

ZASTRO: 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)

FITZPATRICK: 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)

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

(A door slams, creaks)

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

(Slamming continues)

FITZPATRICK: For decades, says Rick Kvitek 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.

KVITEK: 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.

FITZPATRICK: The ocean floor is now strewn with debris.

(Water bubbling, possibly through scuba gear)

FITZPATRICK: Underwater videos shot by Dr. Kvitek depict an astonishing scene.

KVITEK: 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)

FITZPATRICK: 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)

FITZPATRICK: 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)

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

JUERGINS: 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)

FITZPATRICK: 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...

FITZPATRICK: 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...

FITZPATRICK: To Eric Juergins, this new emphasis is a natural step in the evolution of Antarctic exploration.

JUERGINS: 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.

FITZPATRICK: 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.

FITZPATRICK: 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 is now up for ratification in Congress. Environmentalists say it's weak in many areas and they'd like Congress to augment the treaty by extending US environmental laws to American activities in Antarctica. But they're supporting 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 which has just been introduced, 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)

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

(A motor revs up)

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

(Motor sounds continue)

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

(Motor sounds continue)

FITZPATRICK: 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, maybe a little bit.

FITZPATRICK: 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)

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

(High, whining sound continues)

FITZPATRICK: 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.

FITZPATRICK: 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)

FITZPATRICK: 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.

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

(Water lapping on shore)

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

JUERGINS: 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.

FITZPATRICK: 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)

FITZPATRICK: 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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