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Antarctic pollution: how bad is it?

Winter Quarters Bay has a long and checkered record in the annals of Antarctic history. When Robert Falcon Scott made his first trip to the frozen south in 1902, this natural harbor provided a safe anchorage for his ship Discovery during the expedition's two-year-long stay on the ice. Ninety years later, Winter Quarters Bay is known as one of the most polluted spots on the continent.

Located next to modern McMurdo Station, the bay served as a dumping ground for everything from fuel drums to scrap metal until the late 1970s. Analyses show that the waters and bottom sediments there are contaminated with high concentrations of hydrocarbons, PCBs, and other toxic chemicals. Yet the same studies also show that the polluted area remains quite small, essentially limited to the confines of the bay itself, which measures only 9 acres.

"Winter Quarters Bay is as polluted as the harbor of any city, but it's small enough that a good batter could hit a baseball out of it," says John Oliver, an ecologist with Moss Landing (Calif.) Marine Laboratories.

Studying the bottom-dwelling communities in the bay, Oliver and his colleagues have found that pollution has driven away most of the organisms typically found in this ecosystem, leaving the region to be colonized by opportunistic "weedy" species such as polychaete worms. Sites as close as a kilometer away, though, are nearly pristine, the researchers report in the February MARINE POLLUTION BULLETIN, a special issue devoted to the Antarctic environment. The National Science Foundation is now considering options for tackling the mess in the bay.

In the same journal, two research groups discuss the spread of sewage pumped into McMurdo Sound in front of the station. James P. Howington of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Pacific Grove, Calif., and his co-workers traced the distribution of coliform bacteria, a type present in human intestines. They found that water containing significant concentrations of these bacteria (up to 523 coliforms per 100 milliliters) sometimes reached the intake pipe that carries seawater up to a desalinization plant, which produces potable water for McMurdo. A study by a second group confirmed that traces of the sewage reach the seawater intake pipe.

Gordon A. McFeters of Montana State University in Bozeman, who organized the coliform study, says that although coliform concentrations at the intake pipe can reach "fairly high levels at times," studies of McMurdo's tap water indicate that the desalinization process kills the bacteria. He wonders, however, whether intestinal viruses in the sewage might survive the treatment process. At a congressional subcommittee hearing in February, Peter E. Wilkniss, past director of NSF's Office of Polar Programs, said he believes U.S. Antarctic stations will need to start processing their sewage to remove all solid waste before it enters the ocean.

Studies to date suggest that most pollution from human activities in the Antarctic affects only the neighborhood around the scientific bases. But scientists and environmental groups caution that even such localized pollution can harm some science projects. For example, aircraft flights over the continent and the incineration of waste at bases emit gases and heavy metals that could hamper efforts to discern the amount of pollution coming from other continents, says Eric Wolff of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge.

Although incinerators are permitted under the protocol, NSF's use of one at McMurdo Station has drawn considerable criticism from environmental groups. In 1991, the Environmental Defense Fund sued NSF, seeking an injunction that would prevent the foundation from incinerating waste before completing an environmental impact statement, which is required under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).

Later that year, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that NEPA did not apply to Antarctic activities because they occur outside the United States. But in January 1993, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that NEPA did indeed apply. The appeals court sent the case back to the district court to decide whether NSF has adequately assessed the impact of incineration.

Although officials at NSF had hoped to appeal the recent ruling, the Clinton administration decided in March not to seek a rehearing. In late March, NSF temporarily shut down the McMurdo incinerator, saying it will review new data and consider its options for disposing of food waste.

With the reduced population in McMurdo at this time of year, NSF can stockpile the waste, says Lawrence Rudolph, NSF's acting general counsel. But officials do not have long to resolve the issue. In six months, the austral winter will end and McMurdo's cozy population of 200 will swell as 1,000 more waste-producing people arrive at the station.
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Title Annotation:Winter Quarters Bay
Author:Monastersky, Richard
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 10, 1993
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