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Report Says US Agency Polluting Antarctica

August 17, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The National Science Foundation says it is working to clean up its act in Antarctica, where an environmental group says the federal agency’s research bases are polluting the frigid environment.

″We’re making progress,″ says Jack Talmadge, head of NSF’s polar coordination and information section. ″Nobody here wants to rape Antarctica. We want to preserve it.″

Talmadge made the comments Tuesday after the Environmental Defense Fund released a report alleging that the agency’s bases in Antarctica are violating U.S. environmental laws and an international agreement governing use of the frozen continent.

″The environmental practices of the NSF ... would not be permitted anywhere in the United States,″ said the EDF, which frequently brings lawsuits against polluters in this country.

The group said the science agency is dumping untreated sewage and other wastes in Antarctic waters, engaging in open burning of some wastes and operating diesel power generators without emissions controls.

The report said McMurdo Sound, adjacent to the largest U.S. installation, is more polluted than virtually any U.S. waterway and that highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls and heavy metals are being found in the tissues of penguins and seals.

″It is incredible that these practices are observed by the U.S. government in the most pristine environment in the world,″ said Bruce Manheim, the report’s author and an EDF attorney and scientist. ″Rather than addressing environmental threats in Antarctica, NSF has ignored them.″

Talmadge said that many of the report’s findings are true, but he said the agency is taking steps to improve environmental practices at its four bases.

NSF, which gets $125 million a year for its Antarctic activities, is in the process of adopting an environmental protection plan and may ask Congress for cleanup money, according to Talmadge.

″We have been doing pollution control, maybe not as aggressively as they’d like,″ he said, referring to the EDF. ″We have been undertaking extensive efforts to clean up since 1980.″

Talmadge said this year, NSF shipped 160 tons of scrap metal and more than 500 drums of waste oil out of Antarctica. He said those materials are no longer dumped in the Antarctic waters.

He said the agency is reviewing a recommendation by an internal safety panel that it stop using hazardous materials to ignite wastes in open-air burning pits. He said raw sewage is dumped into Antarctic waters because officials believe it is less harmful than the chemicals that could be used to treat it.

The EDF report said the United States is not the only polluter among the 18 nations with bases in Antarctica. It noted, however, that Australia and Japan remove all wastes from the continent and that Poland and New Zealand treat sewage and control incinerator emissions.

The report said that if the United States did a better environmental job in Antarctica, it ″would be in a much stronger position to press for more comprehensive pollution control by less responsible nations.″

EDF said the NSF operations, which include 1,000 people at McMurdo during the Antarctic summer months, violate U.S. laws regulating ocean dumping and land disposal of waste materials.

The landfill at McMurdo does not comply with the international Code of Conduct on Waste Disposal adopted in 1975, according to the report, which said NSF officials told a Senate panel last year that it was ″in full compliance″ with the code.

″We comply with most of the code except that provision,″ Talmadge said. ″As far as we know, we are in compliance″ with U.S. laws, he said.

The report said NSF, despite a 1978 directive from Congress, has failed to assess the environmental impacts of its activities, including dynamite blasting and construction near Antarctic wildlife colonies.

″In 1980 ... NSF promised to issue pollution control regulations and to mitigate environmental impacts, but neither of these actions has ever been taken,″ the report said.

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