Asbestos found in Antarctic waste dump

2019-03-03 08:11:00

By CHRISTOPHER JOYCE in WASHINGTON DC Investigators have discovered asbestos littering an open dump at McMurdo Station, an American research base in Antarctica. The station’s health and safety directors have declared the landfill site a hazard and closed it until the asbestos can be removed or stabilised. The discovery was made in January by a team from the government’s Argonne National Laboratory, says Jack Ditmars of Argonne. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which operates McMurdo, hired the team to track and characterise waste and pollutants that have accumulated at the base. ‘We have no idea how much asbestos there is,’ says Tom Forham, director of health and safety for the NSF’s Antarctic programme. The asbestos comes from discarded construction materials, demolished buildings and insulation from pipes. According to Forham, asbestos that is ‘capped’ in the dump by other materials may not be removed, but will be stabilised instead. ‘Removing it could be more of a hazard than leaving it,’ he says. The landfill, at a site known as Fortress Rock, has long been the source of complaints by environmental pressure groups. Waste has traditionally been burned at the site in open fires, a practice which prompted the Environmental Defense Fund to threaten the NSF with a lawsuit last year. The discovery of asbestos seems to have convinced the NSF to act. A recent NSF work plan states that the asbestos made ‘remediation of the landfill site a top priority’. Forham says the NSF is building an ‘interim’ incinerator at McMurdo to replace open burning at Fortress Rock. It will burn food and ‘domestic’ waste produced by McMurdo’s staff, whose numbers reach about 1200 during the summer. Other waste will be removed from the Antarctic. NSF officials may eventually build a permanent incinerator at the site. Asbestos is considered a hazardous air pollutant. Dumping material containing asbestos in landfills is not illegal, but dumps must be ‘qualified’ to accept such material, according to rules governing waste. Landfills containing asbestos must be covered with soil or vegetation, says Scott Throwe of the Environmental Protection Agency. The cleanup of McMurdo and other bases operated by the US began two years ago with a budget of $8 million. This year the budget has reached $25.3 million. NSF has already replaced about 10 kilometres of hose to stem fuel leaks, characterised the contents of the waste stream from the base, and removed several hundred drums of hazardous waste. Banks have been built around a hazardous waste storage site to divert snow melt from the dump. Much more needs to be done, says Forham, including removing hundreds of barrels of frozen urine. ‘It was sloppy,’ Forham says of the station’s condition,