Antarctica: The Fragile Last Frontier. Many countries disregard environmental protocols

THE release of thousands of gallons of oil from the sunken Argentine Navy supply ship, the Bahia Paraiso, is the worst environmental disaster ever to occur in Antarctica. Numerous seals, penguins, and seabirds on the pristine islands near the shipwreck will likely be lost. That loss could have been avoided but for the attitude of the Argentine government over the question - who owns Antarctica? Although the small club of nations that manage Antarctica froze all territorial claims to the icy continent with adoption of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, underlying territorial tensions remain. These have prevented effective protection of the fragile Antarctic environment. The sinking of the Bahia Paraiso is a case in point. The channel that the Argentine ship sought to negotiate is clearly marked on United States and British charts as containing ``dangerous ledges and pinnacles.'' Yet, despite explicit warnings by US officials, the Argentine captain steamed through the channel until a pinnacle tore a 30-foot hole in the ship's stern. His actions may ultimately stem from the fact that Argentina has made a territorial claim to that part of Antarctica and treats it as her own. Argentina's strong convictions about territorial sovereignty are also manifested at its Esperanza base at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Garbage is typically bulldozed off ice cliffs so that penguins must traverse broken glass and scrap metal to reach their breeding areas.

Argentina is not the only nation that has ignored international measures designed to protect Antarctica. Construction of an airstrip by the French near its Dumont d'Urville base cut off a penguin breeding colony from access to the sea. With the development of a hotel and airstrip by Chile, untold numbers of chinstrap penguins have abandoned their nesting areas. The same may soon be said of wildlife near India's research station.

The treaty nations have also skirted requirements designed to protect unique areas in Antarctica. For example, the Fildes Peninsula on King George Island was set aside in 1975 as a ``specially protected area'' to preserve several lakes and three types of penguins. As protective regulations were being finalized, however, Chile and the Soviet Union built bases in the area. The treaty parties redrew the boundaries to accommodate the bases. Subsequently, China and Uruguay developed bases in the area. The area is now virtually barren of penguins, and at least one lake is used as a garbage dump.

Japan has avoided the International Whaling Commission moratorium on commercial whale harvesting by calling its hunt ``scientific reasearch.'' Similarly, the Soviet Union escaped international regulation by masking its 1987 commercial sealing expedition in Antarctica under the veil of science. Poland and East Germany have stonewalled efforts to protect severely depleted fish species.

Unfortunately, US actions in Antarctica have also violated accords. Operation of Cape Hallett base by the US and New Zealand resulted in the loss of almost 52,000 penguins in just nine years. At McMurdo station - the largest base in Antarctica - Navy helicopter flight patterns caused a 50 percent reduction in breeding at one penguin rookery, and air pollution threatens unique flora miles away. The US maintains an open landfill at McMurdo, and the waters surrounding the base contain greater concentrations of PCBs and heavy metals than virtually all waterways in the US. These toxins are now found in the tissues of Antarctic penguins and seals.

Last November, the US and 32 other nations concluded an agreement that could open the door to oil, gas, and mineral exploitation in Antarctica. This minerals regime contains provisions to prevent despoliation. Yet translating paper edicts into actual measures has proven problematic within a treaty system complicated by questions of territorial sovereignty. We may have much to worry about if oil and gas exploitation ever begins in Antarctica.

To address these problems, the US must immediately bring itself into compliance with Antarctic Treaty requirements. Only then will it be able to urge other nations to comply. This is particularly critical since the Antarctic Treaty comes up for review in 1991.

The United States should also defer consideration of the new minerals accord until a thorough ecological study of the Bahia Paraiso spill is carried out and a liability protocol for cleanup of such spills is adopted.

When it does consider ratification, the Senate should impose strict requirements on US nationals and empower US agencies to sanction nations that fail to comply with Antarctic restrictions.

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