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Two men dig into dirt.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Scientists Andrew Klein, left, and Steve Sweet, with Texas A&M University, collect soil samples at McMurdo Station to test for contaminants. A long-term monitoring program has found that contamination is holding steady or slightly decreasing around the station and nearby marine environment.

Containing contamination

McMurdo environmental monitoring project finds small signs of recovery 

Time is ever so slowly eating away at the bad habits of the past.

A decade-long environmental monitoring program at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site is showing that contamination around the facility and the nearby marine ecosystem is holding steady or slightly decreasing.

“The terrestrial environment is really fairly clean,” noted Andrew Klein External Non-U.S. government site, an associate professor at Texas A&M University External Non-U.S. government site, which has participated in the study every year since 2003 after a three-year pilot project that began in 1999 to establish the monitoring protocols.

Klein and his small team, which includes collaborators from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi External Non-U.S. government site, collect soil samples, marine sediments and even tissue samples from some of the critters that live on the seafloor to gauge how well the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site is doing in limiting its environmental footprint.

The latest report card is looking pretty good, especially for the nearby marine environment that was polluted during the early decades of the USAP after the U.S. Navy External U.S. government site established McMurdo Station in the mid-1950s.

Person works next to muddy stream.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Scientist Daniel Russell carries a GPS to locate sampling sites.
Fish-eye view of divers.
Photo Credit: Michelle Brown
Terry Palmer, right, prepares to dive into Winter Quarters Bay to collect sediment samples for contamination testing.

An area known as Winter Quarters Bay is particularly polluted. The small cove has been used as a harbor since the turn of the 20th century during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration when Robert Falcon Scott’s first expedition wintered there for two years.

The Navy later used it as a convenient trash dump. An ROV survey conducted by Rikk Kviteck of California State University-Monterey Bay External Non-U.S. government site last decade counted 15 vehicles, 26 shipping containers and 603 fuel drums among 1,000-odd items deposited in Winter Quarters Bay.

Such practices are a thing of the past. Serious clean-up efforts began in the early 1990s. The 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty External Non-U.S. government site, which requires environmental assessments of all activities, was the impetus behind the McMurdo monitoring program, according to Klein.

“Like any monitoring program, our goal is to see if any changes are going on,” noted Terry Palmer External Non-U.S. government site, an associate with the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies External Non-U.S. government site at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Palmer is part of the marine component of the monitoring program, donning a dry suit and diving into the frigid, toxic environment where he collects marine sediments and even some marine organisms to see if the pollutants are working their way up the food web.

The bay contains a wicked cocktail of contaminants, including polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), petroleum, combustion hydrocarbons and trace metals. Divers like Palmer collect samples along at three depths along transects in Winter Quarters Bay, as well as at the former waste disposal outfall and at control sites.

Recent analyses show that while pollutants like PCBs and even DDT remain elevated, there are some improvements, according to Palmer.

“It’s really nice to see we’ve had some decreases over time at some of the sites,” he said during a presentation last year in Portland at a meeting of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research External Non-U.S. government site.

Back on land, where Klein and his colleagues spend several weeks each austral summer filling small vials with volcanic soil that makes up Ross Island, contamination levels have held steady, despite the heavy industrial nature of McMurdo Station. The Texas A&M team has collected more than 2,500 surface soil samples since 1999.

Person digs in the dirt.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Scientist Andrew Klein collects a soil sample.

The cold temperatures and the persistent nature of pollutants like PCB ensure they will linger for decades, according to Steve Sweet External Non-U.S. government site, a senior research associate at Texas A&M University-College Station.

“It’s all legacy stuff,” he said of the soil contaminants, which also include heavy metals like lead and mercury, though the levels aren’t necessarily any greater than those found in towns in the United States.

Klein said the contamination is confined to places such as roads, helicopter pads and old fuel tanks.

“It’s not very extensive spatially,” he said. “It’s where you would expect it to happen, and it’s where we’re still doing stuff actively at McMurdo.”

Today, extensive measures are taken to ensure no additional contaminants make it into the McMurdo area environment. All waste is shipped off the continent each year. Containment berms are built around fuel tanks.

In the unlikely event of a fuel spill, counter measures are swift. Contaminated soil is collected and placed in a high-heat “soil cooker” to remove the hydrocarbons.

“The spill levels are much, much less than they were in the past – and they’re remediated immediately,” Klein said. “It does make a difference.”

Mahlon C. Kennicutt II External Non-U.S. government site, a professor at Texas A&M University-College Station, is the principal investigator on the ongoing project.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs