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Legacy Waste and Heritage

There have been several attempts to address the environmental damage from the occupation of Wilkes for the 10 years of its life, and the processes for its remediation. The most recent and comprehensive work has been performed under the direction of Prof. Kirstie Fryirs of Maquarie University.   The main findings were published in “Polar Record” in 2013, and a summary of that report is presented here.

[The type and spatial distribution of past waste at the Abandoned Wilkes Station, East Antarctica Fryirs, KA, Snape I, Babicka N. Polar Record 49 (251): 328–347 (2013)]

ABSTRACT. Legacy waste is a significant problem in Antarctica. This is particularly the case where waste generated on stations prior to the 1980s was incinerated, placed in landfill sites or disposed of at sea. Although several Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) reports from the 1980s recognise that there are contaminated sites at the abandoned Wilkes Station, there has been no systematic attempt to classify the waste or define the spatial scale of the problem, making development of strategic and systematic clean-up or preservation programmes difficult. This article reports on a project to classify the waste remaining on Clark Peninsula using categories listed in Annex III, Article 2 of the Madrid Protocol (1991). 536 sites with one or more waste items have been identified in nine categories that are based on the degree of waste hazard, recyclability, heritage value and waste management potential. Fuel drums, petroleum hydrocarbons waste and contaminated sediment occur at 38% of the sites. This waste includes around 1020 partially full fuel drums. Heritage items that illustrate expedition life at Wilkes occur at about 10% of the sites. Solid, non-combustible waste, including scrap metal, copper wire and pipe, and steel mechanical parts, occurs at 25% of the sites. Potentially hazardous or harmful waste including electrical batteries, plastics including fuel bladders, food remains, treated timber and containers containing persistent compounds occur at 28% of sites. Although hazardous substances, such as caustic soda, explosives and asbestos, occur at only 9% of the sites, these items represent significant contamination and health issues for the sites and for visiting explorers. Any future clean-up operations will require more than just the physical removal of waste. Preservation, removal and treatment of various types of waste from Wilkes will be required as part of a multi-year, multi-strategy approach.

Fig. 5. (Colour online) The distribution of different types of waste across four areas on Clark Peninsula.


Here are some of the images presented in the report to illustrate the nature and extent of the problem.   This photo by Graham Snow was taken during the ‘big melt’ of the summer of 1992.  The other images testify to the huge problem of remediation that exists here.  Wandering around the site in 2008, we found rusting fuel drums that had been blown high up on Remembrance Ridge and wedged among the rocks.

Professor Fryirs' group also examined the problem against the criteria of the Antarctic Treaty obligations as expressed through the Madrid Protocol in a second report. [Camenzuli D, Fryirs KA, Gore DB with Freidman BL. Managing legacy waste in the presence of cultural heritage at Wilkes Station, East Antarctica Polar Record. Page 1 of 9. _c Cambridge University Press 2013. doi:10.1017/S0032247413000740]

Finally they added the dimension of chemical contamination to their project and wrote a third report. [Metal and petroleum hydrocarbon contamination at Wilkes Station, East Antarctica Fryirs KA, Hafsteinsdóttir EG, Stark SC, and Gore DB Antarctic Science page 1 of 16 (2014) doi:10.1017/S0954102014000443] 

The abstract of that paper follows:  The management of sediment and water contamination from legacy waste is a significant problem in Antarctica. Although several reports have noted that there are contaminated sites at the abandoned Wilkes Station, a systematic attempt to assess the spatial scale of the problem has not been made, making development of clean-up or preservation programmes difficult. A contaminated site assessment for the old Wilkes Station and surrounds is presented in this paper. The Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) sediment and water quality guidelines and background concentration levels (BCL) were used to assess the extent of contamination across Clark Peninsula. Of 67 sediment sites sampled, 72% were contaminated with at least one metal or metalloid, with values exceeding the ANZECC ISQG-High or 2 x BCL. Moreover, 19% were contaminated with four or more metals/metalloids. Of the 93 water samples collected, all but one was contaminated with at least one metal/metalloid concentration exceeding the guidelines, and 96% were contaminated with two or more metals/metalloids. For hydrocarbons in sediment and water, most samples were below quantitation limits. There is a complex pattern of contamination across Clark Peninsula that needs to be considered in future waste treatment, containment or removal operations, and for protection of heritage items.