Our rusting Antarctic time bomb
Australia's abandoned Antarctic Wilkes station is an environmental disaster, slowly leaking chemicals and fuels into the pristine environment.PT2M4S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-326gu 620 349 February 7, 2014
Dotted in the snow at Australia's abandoned Wilkes Station in Antarctica at least 3000 rusting fuel drums, many still full of oil and other chemicals, are a leaking hazard in the pristine environment.
The toxic dump left over from an era when rubbish was turfed out onto the ice is a 45-year-old problem requiring millions of dollars and a decade-long commitment to clean up the mess.
But the Australian Antarctic Division's program leader in charge of human impacts research, Martin Riddle, said while there was broad agreement on a need to clean up Wilkes, there was no plan or money to do it.
Toxic: Rusting fuel drums. Photo: Nicky Phillips
The extent of the waste is not known because the site is buried under snow and ice.
''The tip contains domestic waste such as food scraps, and everything an Antarctic town might produce and discard over the course of 12 years: batteries, pipes, cables, chemicals, dead dogs, eggs, asbestos, transformers, timber and building materials to name some of the items we have seen,'' Dr Riddle said.
Elevated contamination levels have been found in local plants and animals and contaminants are known to be accumulating on the nearby sea floor.
A box of soap contaminate land at derelict Wilkes Station. Photo: Nicky Phillips
Dr Riddle said working in Antarctica was difficult and the costs for any clean-up would be large.
''The main challenges are financial and competing pressures for resources and logistics - the opportunity cost. It will require a 10-year commitment to get the job done,'' he said.
The most harmful materials would need to be excavated and containerised for shipping to Australia for treatment or disposal.
Low-level contaminants would likely be remediated on site using techniques being trialled by scientists at smaller Australian Antarctic waste sites.
The derelict Wilkes Station lies three kilometres from Casey Station, Australia's largest permanent Antarctic research base.
The US first established Wilkes in 1957 and used it for two years before it was transferred to Australia in 1959.
Ten years later, Wilkes was closed when a replacement station was built near the site of the current Casey Station.
These days there is an international agreement that all rubbish produced in Antarctica is brought back to the country that generated it, but in the Wilkes days rubbish was thrown into an open tip near the seashore, or worse.
''It was common practice to push the waste material out on to the sea ice in an effort towards good housekeeping. In summer the sea ice would melt and the waste fall through to the sea floor or it would break out and carry the rubbish with it,'' Dr Riddle said.
In the late 1980s, Australia and France led a push for an international environmental treaty covering Antarctica called the Madrid Protocol.
Treaty parties were required to clean up abandoned work and waste sites where it can be done without creating more environmental harm than leaving it in place.
Dr Riddle said the amount of contaminated material across the Antarctic continent was between 1 million and 10 million cubic metres.
Colin Cosier and Nicky Phillips travelled to Antarctica as part of the Australian Antarctic Division's media program.