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.