Pristine Antarctica: Threatened by science station sewage

by Sara Munčs

Antarctica has long been designated as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”[1]. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, and its’ Protocol on Environmental Protection from 1991, place strict regulations on the different types of activities that can be conducted in the Antarctic [1, 2]. All activities related to mineral resources are prohibited and directives are given on practice related to flora and fauna, marine pollution and protected areas [1]. Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) have to be conducted for all activities in order to judge how they may affect the Antarctic environment and its scientific value [3]. One would think that this treaty has covered all bases in order to keep Antarctica the pristine wilderness that it is. However, recent research has brought to light that the very stations aiming to protect the Antarctic may be polluting it due to their waste management strategies [4].

McMurdo Research Station, Photograph by Norbert Wu, Science Faction/ Corbis , Retrieved from

McMurdo Research Station, Photograph by Norbert Wu, Science Faction/ Corbis [4]

Antarctica is home to about 4000 people occupying 82 research bases in the austral summer months and about 1000 people in the winter [5,6]. The Protocol on Environmental Protection accounts for waste management strategies, but while the regulations for chemical waste as well as disposal of garbage and recycling are quite strict, the standards for sewage are much lower [7]. Water treatment is mandatory for stations of 30 people or more but maceration (breaking up all solid components into small pieces) is the only treatment legally required [6, 7]. Only 37% of the permanent stations and 69% of the summer stations actually treat their waste water [6]. The largest station, the United States’ McMurdo station, has only had maceration treatment facilities since 2003 [5, 8].
The potential for pollution from sewage disposal has been recognized for a number of years. Studies have been conducted at sewage discharge points to determine the extent of damage done to the biodiverse sea floor. The following video briefly explains the research conducted by Kathy Conlan from the Canadian Museum of Nature:

The pollutants released from untreated waste water can be organic, such as human pathogens and other microorganisms [6], but can also be persistent toxic chemicals like polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), a flame retardant that has been detected in Antarctic environments [5]. One of the big problems in both cases is that the cold Antarctic waters allow the pollutants to remain viable for longer periods of time than in warmer temperatures [4,5,6]. Most recently a new type of flame retardant, hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), has been discovered in the sewage sludge released from McMurdo station, in the surrounding environment, and even in the tissue of Adélie penguins [4]. This demonstrates that the pollutants released from the waste water are bioaccumulating up the food chain [4].

Adélie Penguin, Michelle Newnan, National Geographic Your Shot

Adélie Penguin, Michelle Newnan, National Geographic Your Shot [4]

It is clear that regulations regarding the treatment of waste water need to be tightened, however EA could also have a role to play. A cumulative impacts assessment could be of great use to determine the extent of environmental degradation and the main sources of this degradation, so that waste management strategies can be rectified before one of the last pristine environments on the planet is ruined.

REFERENCES

[1] Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty (2011) “The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty” Retrieved from <http://www.ats.aq/e/ep.htm > on March 15th, 2014.
[2] Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty (2011) “The Antarctic Treaty” Retrieved from <http://www.ats.aq/e/ats.htm >  on March 15th, 2014.
[3] Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty (2011) “Environmental Impact Assessment” Retrieved from <http://www.ats.aq/e/ep_eia.htm> on March 15th, 2014.
[4] Holland, J.S. (March 4th, 2014) “Antarctic Research Bases Spew Toxic Wastes Into Environment” for National Geographic. Retrieved from <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/03/140304-antarctica-research-toxic-adelie-penguins-mcmurdo-station-science/> on March 15th, 2014.
[5] Hale R.C. et al. (2008) “Antarctic Research Bases: Local Sources of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether (PBDE) Flame Retardants” Environmental Science and Technology, 42: 1452–1457.
[6] Gröndahl, F., J. Sidenmark & Thomsen A. (2009) Polar Research, 28: 298–306.
[7] Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. (1991) “Annex III: Waste Disposal and Waste Management” Retrieved from <http://www.ats.aq/documents/recatt/Att010_e.pdf> on March 15th, 2014.
[8] NASA Quest. “Environmental Protection in the Antarctic” Retrieved from <http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/antarctica/background/NSF/facts/fact08.html> on March 15th, 2014.

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