Australia Stuck with U.S. Polar Ghost Town

HOBART, Australia, October 15, 2001 (ENS) - The United States is unlikely to help clean up long-abandoned Wilkes Station, which it built in 1957, and now stands as an environmental blot on the Antarctic landscape.

Sited in a hollow on the shores of Vincennes Bay in eastern Antarctica, Wilkes has been entombed in ice for more than 30 years. But the U.S. government is said to believe any obligations to remove it are now Australia's.

The difference of opinion between the two countries emerged as Australia announced a costly new program to dig frozen rubbish out of Thala Valley near Casey Station, across the bay from Wilkes, and bring it back to Australia for sorting and disposal.

Wilkes

Wilkes Station (Photo credit unknown)
According to the Australian Antarctic Division, the Thala Valley project is seen as a trial of techniques that could be used at the much larger Wilkes. But although plans to clean up Wilkes were first announced in 1998, that attempt is predicted to be still years away and involve a much longer term program.

The clean-up by Australia complies with the Antarctic Treaty's 1991 Protocol on Environment Protection. Its demand that abandoned facilities be removed from the global nature reserve is placing new pressure on nations to act.

The project director for the Thala Valley operation, Mike Williamson of Sydney company Collex-Onyx, plans to bring at least 3,000 tonnes of waste back to Australia. But he estimated that about 300,000 tonnes of waste had accumulated around the rest of Antarctica.

Abandoned buildings, cast-off machinery and equipment, and garbage, has been discarded by the dozens of nations who have stations on the ice. Among them, Russian officials were recently reported by Tass to have cited the cost of removing the network of former Soviet bases as a reason for continuing its operations.

Wilkes, built in just 17 days as part of the feverish activities of the 1957 International Geophysical Year, proved to be located in the wrong place and faced continual problems with snow and ice accumulation over its buildings.

After just a year's solo operations, the U.S. government made the first proposal to give it to Australia, and for several years it was operated jointly by the two nations with about 25 expeditioners.

Wilkes

The "Wilkes Hilton" (Photo credit unknown)
Then all of its equipment and buildings, covering an area of 1.2 km by 400 metres, were handed over to Australia on an indefinite long-term loan, according to "The Silence Calling," the official 50 year history of Australia's Antarctic expeditions.

Australians persevered at the site until 1969 when Casey station opened and Wilkes was closed. The site remains much as it was left, with accommodation, dining and working structures still in place. Australian expeditioners who sometimes visit the site say it is "desolate and spooky", with food and books still on shelves, but frozen in ice.

Over the years, sporadic discussions have been held between the United States and Australia about the future of Wilkes. An informed source said these continued, but the United States was "not that keen" on assisting with what would be a costly and lengthy task.

{Published in cooperation with The Antarctican, online at: http://www.antarctican.com }