Human impacts and remediation

Welder, Stuart Norris, assists with the construction of the advanced treatment plant at the Australian Antarctic Division.
Australian Antarctic Division welder, Stuart Norris, assists with the construction of an advanced wastewater treatment plant for Davis station. (Photo: Michael Packer)
A rotting pear and onion contaminated with fungi and insects.
Early waste disposal practices in Antarctica have left a legacy of contaminated sites at occupied and abandoned research stations. Waste management at Antarctic stations before the mid-1980s was similar to elsewhere in the world at that time, with the creation of domestic-style rubbish tips in local valleys or bays. Open burning of rubbish was common practice, and rubbish was often bulldozed out onto the sea ice during winter to be carried off with the ice floes when they broke up in summer. Sewage disposal varied between direct ocean dumping and burning in gas-fired toilets. In addition, over the years spilt fuel and lubricants from vehicles and machinery have contaminated many areas that are used for fuel storage and vehicle maintenance.

Thankfully times have changed and current waste management practices in Antarctica are now more refined. Open disposal of waste is no longer permitted but accidental spills of fuel and oil still occur, and sewage is discharged to the marine environment. Today there is between one and 10 million cubic metres of contaminated material in Antarctica.

With the ratification of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Madrid Protocol) in 1998, all countries operating in the Antarctic are now committed to comprehensive protection of the environment, overseen by the Committee for Environmental Protection. The Madrid Protocol specifies that all newly generated waste should be removed from Antarctica, and member countries are obliged to remove old waste unless the action of removing the waste creates a greater adverse environmental impact than leaving the waste where it is (read about our contamination research).

Because of shipping limitations, it is not practical to remove all such waste for disposal in the countries of origin, and removal of Antarctic soils may not be the best environmental solution. Containment and on-site ‘remediation’ (clean-up of pollutants at the contaminated site) may offer a more cost-effective solution, but remediation techniques that work under Antarctic conditions must be developed.

Our human impacts and remediation research will:

  • provide the scientific basis for procedures, technologies and environmental guidelines to reduce environmental impacts (from chemicals, fuels, metals, sewage, air pollution and non-native species);
  • finalise research in support of remediation of all high priority contaminated sites for which Australia is responsible;
  • collate human impacts research and mitigation in support of environmental protection in Antarctica based on developments since the Protocol was agreed.

The research focuses on on four key questions:

  • What management technologies could be used to achieve zero waste discharge at Antarctic stations?
  • What technologies are practical and effective for the containment or remediation of contaminated sites (e.g. tip sites, fuel spills) in cold climates?
  • What are appropriate risk assessment, mitigation and remediation guidelines for the various pressures facing Antarctic and subantarctic terrestrial and marine environments, including contaminants, introduced non-native species and intra-site transfer of native species?
  • What are the likelihood, immediacy and severity of potential and emerging environmental threats?

To answer these questions scientists are investigating:

  • tertiary treatment options for station sewage and effluent to reduce the impact on and risks to the environment
  • characteristics of fuel products to assist management at spill sites
  • remediation technologies for fuel spill and metal contamination that are optimised for cold regions, at contaminated sites in Antarctica and Macquarie Island
  • techniques for the development of marine water, marine sediment and terrestrial soil quality guidelines for fuels and metals in the Antarctic and subantarctic
  • options for guidelines on sewage discharge and air emissions from Antarctic stations
  • pathways for the introduction of non-native species in Antarctica and the subantarctic using data collected during the International Polar Year (2007-09)
  • patterns of non-native species distribution and the consequences of such species establishing
  • persistent organic pollutant flux and bioaccumulation in East Antarctica to reduce the risks from emerging chemical threats from Antarctic stations and elsewhere.