Fuel munching microbes help clean up Antarctica

Installing a permeable reactive barrier at Casey station.
Installing a permeable reactive barrier at Casey station.

5th December 2010

Micro-organisms will assist a team of scientists to clean up contaminated sites in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island this year. 

The remediation projects are focused on old fuel spill locations at Casey station and Macquarie Island.

Field manager, Tim Spedding, said naturally occurring micro-organisms in the soil are encouraged to consume more of the leaked fuel in order to speed up the remediation process.

“Fuel is a natural source of energy for the micro-organisms, and we want to encourage them to use it more by aerating and adding nutrients to the contaminated soil, making it break down faster,” Mr Spedding said.

“We are also using leading technology, permeable reactive barriers, developed with our colleagues from Melbourne University to stop the fuel spreading from the contaminated site into the surrounding environment."

The team will also help finalise the clean-up of the old tip site at Casey station, known as Thala Valley, with the contaminated soil being collected and shipped back to Australia.

Some of the remediation group will depart Hobart today on the icebreaker Aurora Australis.  Hear more about the project from Tim Spedding:

[Video]

Fuel munching microbes help clean up Antarctica

Video transcript

Environmental Scientist and Field Manager Tim Spedding:

We work on a number of projects looking at the remediation of contaminated sites in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic and that involves looking at old fuel spills and remediating and assessing old fuel spills as well as looking at the best technologies to remediate old tip sites.

Australia does have certain obligations under the Madrid Protocol and that doesn’t necessarily mean full scale remediation but certainly would involve a recognition and risk management of old tip sites and old fuel spills. Almost all of the impacts related to Australian activity in Antarctica are around the old stations, there’s an effect on the soil and the water. There is always the risk of further migration of contaminants and then you will certainly have impacts on wildlife as well. But one of the biggest things certainly with fuel is that visible sheen on the water which is an aesthetic issue as well as toxicological issue.

At Casey we have a team of seven people working on both fuel spill at the main powerhouse, as well as the old tip site at Thala Valley – looking at the final clean up of that. At Casey we have been working for the last 5 or 6 years on the containment of a fuel spill we’ve installed a permeable reactive barrier which basically intercepts any contaminated water flowing from the contaminated area and preventing it from migrating into the ocean and into fresh water lakes.

This year we are also looking at bio-piles, rather than dealing with the material in-situ we actually end up excavating the material and treating it in stockpiles and then once remediated you can return the clean soil back to where it was excavated from.

Fuel is just a source of food for a lot of micro-organisms that naturally occur in the soil and really all we try to do is create the best environment for those micro-organisms to live and break down that fuel, thereby remediating that soil. So what we do is we end up adding oxygen, aerating the soil, as well as adding nutrients, using nitrogen and some phosphorous, again just to encourage the micro-organisms to be very active in degrading and breaking down the fuel in the soil.

At Macquarie Island we have an ongoing fuel remediation program there around the old fuel farm as well as the main powerhouse and we have a team of three people going down there this year. We are using the same principles of encouraging the micro-organisms to break the fuel down. But what we are doing is aerating the soil, so we haven’t excavated the soil at all, we are dealing with contaminated area as it is and we are injecting air as well as nutrients into the ground.

The way most Antarctic nations, and certainly Australia, operate in the Antarctic has changed considerably in terms of waste management practices, certainly over the last 10–15 years. Australian operations these days, almost all of the material that is taken down south that isn’t used is returned to Australia, which is a major step forward.

[end transcript]