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Antarctic Environments Portal

Clean-up of past waste disposal sites and abandoned work sites in Antarctica

IS Cleanup EN

Information Summary

Version: 1.0

Published: 03/04/2014 GMT

Reviewed: 18/08/2014 GMT

Authors

Ewan McIvor

Australian Antarctic Division, Channel Highway, Kingston, Tasmania, Australia.
Ewan.McIvor@aad.gov.au

DOI: 10.18124/D47P4K


Synopsis

Historical operational practices have left waste disposal and abandoned work sites in many locations in Antarctica. Many countries have undertaken clean-up activities in order to minimise ongoing environmental impacts at these sites, but many sites remain that require attention. The environmental impacts at these sites are expected to increase over time, as structures and containers continue to degrade. The practical difficulties and escalating costs of clean-up increase the urgency of undertaking remediation actions in a timely manner. The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (the Protocol) includes requirements that aim to prevent the creation of further contaminated sites. It also requires that existing sites be cleaned up, provided that doing so does not result in greater adverse environmental impact. Work has begun to develop and share best-practice guidance for these efforts. Much work remains to develop agreed environmental quality targets, remediation / clean-up technologies, and monitoring and evaluation customised to the Antarctic and individual sites.


Summary

In accordance with the Protocol, wastes generated in Antarctica are required to be strictly managed to avoid or minimise impacts on the Antarctic environment. Many types of waste must be removed from Antarctica, although some non-hazardous wastes can be disposed of by high temperature incineration or, for liquid wastes, by discharge into the sea or into deep ice pits, under certain conditions. Prior to the adoption of the Protocol, waste management at Antarctic facilities often involved the open burning of waste and the dumping of waste at nearby sites on land (1, 2). Similarly, it was commonplace to abandon disused facilities with little planning for their fate. Many past waste disposal and abandoned work sites require ongoing management today. Such sites are frequently characterised by a mix of physical debris (e.g. building materials, machinery, vehicles, general rubbish) and chemical contaminants, some of which may be in containers (which may deteriorate) and some of which may have been released into the environment (3).

Along the coast, waste disposal sites often extend into the near-shore marine environment (4). Seepage and runoff from abandoned sites, and from more recent spill sites, can result in contamination redistributing in the environment, including biological uptake and biomagnification. In general, the rate of degradation of contaminants (especially synthetic chemicals) is greatly reduced in the cold Antarctic conditions.

Based on extrapolation from a few well documented sites, it has been estimated that the volume of abandoned, unconfined waste materials in Antarctica may be greater than 1 million m3 and that the volume of petroleum-contaminated sediment may be similar (3). This is a relatively small volume compared to other parts of the world, but the significance of the associated environmental impacts is magnified since many Antarctic contaminated sites are located in scarce coastal ice-free areas (5) that provide habitat for most terrestrial Antarctic species and marine species that breed in these areas.

There are additional reasons to remediate historic waste disposal and abandoned work sites in Antarctica, including:

  • many of these sites contain potential chemical contaminants in containers (e.g. drums filled with fuel, oil) and leakage due to loss of the integrity of the containers can cause contamination at and beyond the site of disposal making remediation more difficult and costly (6);
  • climate changes may accelerate localised release of contamination from such sites due to accelerated melting (ATCM XXXIII/WP63);
  • the harmful effects of chemical contaminants on the environment can be expected to increase with increasing time of exposure (7) further contributing to cumulative impacts, in tandem with other environmental stressors (8);
  • dispersion processes (e.g. the transport of contaminants in water due to the melting of snow or ice) can cause the total area contaminated to increase with time, in some cases resulting in contamination of the adjacent marine environment (6);
  • some sites may be lost to the ocean or covered by ice/snow making remediation more difficult and costly; and
  • possible risks to human health (e.g. hazardous chemicals or other substances, such as asbestos).

To address the management and clean-up of past waste disposal and abandoned work sites, Annex III to the Protocol, on Waste Disposal and Waste Management, entered into force in 1998. It establishes an objective of reducing as far as practicable the amount of wastes produced or disposed of in the Antarctic Treaty area, to ‘minimise impact on the Antarctic environment and to minimise interference with the natural values of Antarctica, with scientific research and with other uses of Antarctica which are consistent with the Antarctic Treaty’.  Annex III provides (in Article 1.5) that:

Past and present waste disposal sites on land and abandoned work sites of Antarctic activities shall be cleaned up by the generator of such wastes and the user of such sites. This obligation shall not be interpreted as requiring:

a. the removal of any structure designated as a historic site or monument; or
b. the removal of any structure or waste material in circumstances where the removal by any practical option would result in greater adverse environmental impact than leaving the structure or waste material in its existing location.

The subject of clean-up has been considered since the first meeting in 1998 of the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP), which was established under the Protocol to provide advice and formulate recommendations to the Antarctic Treaty Parties. A number of countries have reported to the CEP on efforts to clean-up past waste disposal and abandoned work sites (ATCM XXXV/IP6, ATCM XXXV/WP62). Available information, however, including the reports of official inspections under the Antarctic Treaty and Protocol, suggests that considerable work remains to be done to fully realise the protection goals of the Protocol.

The clean-up of waste disposal and abandoned work sites is identified by the CEP as one of the highest priority issues for its attention, within the broader topic of repair and remediation of environmental damage. Specifically, the CEP has identified the need to develop guidelines for ‘best practice approach to clean up’. The Committee has commenced work on this task, and ATCM XXXVI (2013) adopted Resolution 2 (2013), recommending that the Parties disseminate and encourage the use of the CEP Clean-Up Manual. The Manual contains guidance to assist Parties to address their obligations under Annex III to the Protocol to clean up past waste disposal sites on land and abandoned work sites of past activities. It also identifies further materials that are desirable to guide and enhance clean-up efforts, including on site assessment, environmental quality targets, clean-up techniques and monitoring and evaluation. The Parties also encouraged the CEP to continue to develop the Manual, with the input of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP) on scientific and practical matters, respectively.


Key Events

1975:

ATCM VIII adopts Recommendation VIII-11, which contains the first agreed guidance for the appropriate management and disposal of waste generated by expeditions and stations, with a view to minimising impacts on the Antarctic environment. It recommends that, to the greatest extent feasible, the Parties observe a Code of Conduct for Antarctic Expeditions and Station Activities, including recommended procedures for waste disposal and waste management.

1983:

ATCM XII adopts Recommendation XII-4 which raises the desirability of revising the Code of Conduct, in response to increases in the awareness of the potential environmental impacts of the disposal of waste in the Antarctic region, in the level and degree of complexity of Antarctic operations, and in the feasibility of on-site treatment or removal of wastes from the Antarctic Treaty area.

1985:

ATCM XIII adopts Recommendation XIII-4, which invites National Antarctic Committees to undertake a comprehensive review of the waste disposal aspects of the Annex to Recommendation VIII-11, and to offer scientific advice regarding waste disposal procedures and standards.

1989:

Drawing on the report of a SCAR Panel of Experts on Waste Disposal in the Antarctic, ATCM XV adopts Recommendation XV-3, which contains recommended waste disposal and waste management practices, including that:

  • each Government carrying out Antarctic activities shall ‘prepare and annually update programs for cleaning up existing waste disposal sites and abandoned work sites’;
  • each Government shall ‘establish a long-term program to remove existing abandoned fuel drums and fuel, where such removal is practical. Such programs shall identify for clean up at the first opportunity those drum sites where the transport equipment which delivered the drums is no longer available in the same area’; and
  • those carrying out activities in Antarctica shall to the maximum extent practicable clean up the waste disposal sites and abandoned work sites of their Antarctic activities.

1991:

SATCM XI adopts the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, including Annex III: Waste Disposal and Waste Management. Article 1.5 of Annex III reflects many elements of Recommendation XV-3.

1998:

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, including Annex III Waste Disposal and Waste Management, enter into force on 14 January.

2006:

COMNAP convenes a Workshop on Waste Management in Antarctica, which involves a day dedicated to the sharing of practical information on the clean-up of old waste in Antarctica. The workshop’s main findings are summarised in ATCM XXX/IP98.

2008:

CEP XI adopts a five-year work plan which identifies the issue of clean-up of sites of past activity as a 'low' priority issue. Related actions for the CEP include: establish an Antarctic-wide inventory of sites of past activity; and develop guidelines for a best practice approach to clean up.

2010:

ATCM XXXIII adopts Decision 4 (2010) Liability arising from Environmental Emergencies which, among other things, records the Parties’ decision to:

request the Committee for Environmental Protection to consider environmental issues related to the practicality of repair or remediation of environmental damage in the circumstances of Antarctica, in order to assist the ATCM in adopting an informed decision in 2015 related to the resumption of the negotiations.

2011:

In response to Decision 4 (2010), CEP XIV incorporates clean-up into its work plan under the broader topic of repair and remediation of environmental damage, which is ranked as a priority 1 issue. Specifically, the work plan calls for the development of guidelines for ‘best practice approach to clean up’.

2012:

CEP XV supports a proposal by Australia and the United Kingdom in ATCM XXXV/WP21 to develop a manual containing guidance to assist Parties to address their obligations under Annex III to the Environmental Protocol to clean up past waste disposal sites on land and abandoned work sites of past activities.

2013:

ATCM XXXVI adopts Resolution 2 (2013), which recommends that the Parties disseminate and encourage the use of the Clean-Up Manual, as appropriate, to assist with addressing their obligations under Article 1(5) of Annex III.