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.
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.
The full extent of the waste is not known because the site is buried under decades of snow and ice.
Dr Riddle said: “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.”
Elevated contamination levels have been found in local plants and animals.
Dr Riddle said the cost of a clean-up would be high. “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 put in containers for shipping to Australia for treatment or disposal.
Low-level contaminants would likely be remediated on site using techniques being trialled at smaller Australian Antarctic waste sites.
The derelict Wilkes Station lies three kilometres away from Australia’s largest permanent research base, Casey Station. The US first established Wilkes in 1957 and used it for two years before it was transferred to Australia.
Wilkes was closed in 1969 when a replacement station was built near the site of the Casey Station.
Whereas now there’s an international agreement that all rubbish produced in Antarctica is brought back to the country that generated it, when Wilkes was open rubbish was thrown into a tip near the seashore, or worse.
“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.
Colin Cosier and Nicky Phillips travelled as part of the Australian Antarctic Division’s media program.
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