Annex III to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty sets out requirements for waste management in Antarctica. These include waste minimisation through source reduction and recycling, consideration of waste storage, disposal and removal when planning and conducting activities, returning waste to the organising country where possible, and cleaning up sites of past activities.
Antarctica New Zealand has developed a waste management policy and a waste management handbook that provides detailed procedures for handling waste material in Antarctica and on its return to Christchurch.
Sewage disposal, both at Scott Base and at field camps, must also comply with Annex III requirements. No waste can be disposed of to ice-free land or fresh water, and disposal to ice is allowed only in special circumstances. At Scott Base sewage is treated with a biological process using aerated submerged media and released into the sea.
Antarctica New Zealand’s wastewater treatment plant was commissioned into service in the 2001/02 Antarctic summer season. The plant was the result of over two years of work by Antarctica New Zealand operations and environmental staff with the help of external specialists. While the technology used is not unique, the plant was specially designed in New Zealand to meet the particular needs of wastewater treatment at Scott Base in Antarctica.
Scott Base produces 17,000 litres of wastewater per day. The wastewater plant treats all human waste and grey water (eg. washing water) produced at Scott Base by a process of screening, clarifying, biological treatment and finally disinfecting. In future some of the treated water produced by the plant may then be recycled for use in flushing toilets.
The new system exceeds the requirements of international agreements for environmental protection in force in Antarctica. The existing wastewater outfall appears to have had only a slight and highly localised effect on the environment, but the very small risk of uptake of pathogens or genetic material from wastewater by native organisms was considered potentially serious. Ultraviolet disinfection before disposal of treated wastewater will mitigate this risk.
The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty requires old waste disposal sites and abandoned work sites to be cleaned up unless doing so would cause worse environmental damage or would impact a designated Historic Site or Monument.
In accordance with these obligations, New Zealand has successfully completed the clean up at two past sites of activity – Vanda Station and Cape Roberts. Vanda Station was established before environmental requirements were in place, while the Cape Roberts Project was able to be planned with the need for minimum impact and post-activity remediation in mind.
Clean-up is completed at the site of the former joint New Zealand-United States station at Cape Hallett in Northern Victoria Land. Antarctica New Zealand is working closely with the United States Antarctic Program to achieve this and has also had assistance from Italy in removing rubbish from the site and returning it to New Zealand on the MV Italica.
Hallett Station was operated jointly by New Zealand and the United States from 1957 to February 1973 on the eastern side of Cape Hallett and was occupied as a year-round research station until 1964 when the main scientific laboratory was destroyed by fire. The station was then used as a summer-only research station until 1973 when it was abandoned. Between 1984 and 1987 various clean-up activities were undertaken, including dismantling the bulk of the old station buildings and cleaning up site rubbish. In 1993/94 and 1994/95, US teams removed much of the fuel that remained on site in failing containment. A joint NZ-US assessment visit in 2001 identified debris and suspected contamination remaining on site. The few remaining small buidlings were taken down in 2003/04.
An international scientific drilling project was staged from Cape Roberts between 1995 and 2000. Drilling was conducted from a sea-ice platform while an area of land on the Cape itself was used for storage of equipment and supplies between seasons. Good baseline information about the site was collected before the project began and a strict environmental management programme, including auditing and monitoring, was included in the Comprehensive Environmental Evaluation process. Because of the strong preventative measures, very few fuel spills or other incidents occurred during the project and those that did occur were well reported. Environmental monitoring was conducted throughout the project and for two years following its completion. Acceptable limits were set for each parameter and were not exceeded. Planned remediation was undertaken after removal of equipment, including litter picking and a novel approach to soil compacted by vehicles and storage – this was loosened by raking. After a winter the compacted areas were impossible to identify. Today almost no signs of the project remain.
Lake Vanda was the site of a small New Zealand station occupied from 1968 to 1995, when it was removed due to concerns over rising lake levels. The occupation of Vanda Station and associated activities had resulted in disturbance by trampling and vehicle movement, excavations and erection of buildings, storage of consumables, accidental spills and waste disposal. In the first two years of operation some dry wastes were burnt and all liquid wastes were poured onto the ground adjacent to the station. These wastes included grey water, urine, used photo chemicals and some battery acid. From 1970 all solid and liquid waste except strained grey water was removed from the Wright Valley. Strained grey water continued to be dumped on the ground until 1993. Removal of the station, comprising eight buildings able to accommodate 14 people, took over 180 person days and 70 helicopter hours to complete. Buildings and a large amount of contaminated soil and painted rocks were removed. The biggest fear was that the lake, which is highly valued for science, would be contaminated. Sampling and analysis of the lake water and algae was conducted for several years after the station was removed to make sure this was not occurring.