Required fire drills in Svalbard pollute Arctic waters

Required fire drills in Svalbard pollute Arctic waters

Required fire drills in Svalbard pollute Arctic waters

Top image: The airport in Longyearbyen is a surprisingly large source of fluorinated compounds. Photo: Georg Mathisen/NMBU

Large volumes of residues from aqueous fire-fighting foam from the airports in Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund contaminate drainage water and pollutes the local marine environment. 

10 May 2021
Text: Georg Mathisen
This article was first published on www.nmbu.no.

“Our findings refer to poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS”, says Professor Roland Kallenborn at NMBU and UNIS.

The NMBU professor has been researching these environmental toxins for many years already, ever since the compounds were detected in the Arctic in the early 2000s. Today more than 4000 PFASs are identified as potential environmental pollutants.

Recently, they have been found in Svalbard as local pollutants, in both Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund, where it is confirmed now that they are released into the environment via wastewater.

Accumulation

PFASs are synthetic substances that are not broken down in nature. They are also called “forever contaminants”, as some of them may also accumulate in people and the environment. PFASs are used in many day-to-day products, such as repellents for waterproof textiles and food packaging, Teflon coating on frying pans and pots, and in ski wax.

They can also be found in aqueous film-forming foam (AFF), which are used for fire protection of large industrial facilities, such as offshore installations and airports.

“We are cooperating with many Norwegian research institutes in studying these new types of pollution. This includes the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA), the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (NGI) and the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI). In Longyearbyen, we could confirm that the airport fire-fighting facilities is an important source for PFAS. These substances are released directly through regular fire combatting exercises into the environment and released into the water runoff after the fire drills,” Kallenborn explains.

“We also found relatively high concentrations in the wastewater indicating additional domestic sources in the settlement.”

Half as much as Gardermoen

The PFAS pollution level is now approaching that found for Norwegian mainland airports. However, Longyearbyen airport only serves between one and three departures a day on average, servicing a permanent population of less than 2,500 people.

“The concentration reported in the report was half the level found in Gardermoen, the main airport near Oslo with hundreds of departures a day. This should be considered as important information for the local authorities,” says Roland Kallenborn.

On the other side of Longyearbyen, the researchers found PFAS discharges in the water that runs out of an old abandoned landfill site close to Adventdalen Valley. The landfill was in use until the late 1990s.

“These are the two main sources identified for this type of compounds that we have found,” says the NMBU professor.

Not so pure after all

He emphasises that Svalbard is generally considered to be a very pure and undisturbed environment.

NILU describes how the Zeppelin Observatory in Ny-Ålesund is located in an area with the cleanest air in the northern hemisphere. Ny-Ålesund is one of the places in the world where air pollution has been measured for the longest time, since the 1980s.

“Through our work, it has become increasingly clear that we are dealing with a local challenge in the form of pollution that has not been monitored for very long yet. Studying new environmental toxins and local pollution in the Arctic is a relatively new field,” he explains.

“The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme published its first report on new local pollution in the Arctic only two years ago.”

Researchers have also studied how large amounts of environmental toxins have found their way into various species of animals, fish and birds. It has previously been shown that two-thirds of the glaucous gulls nesting on Bjørnøya Island disappeared between 1986 and 2010, primarily because of long-range pollution.

This time, Kallenborn and his colleagues found twice as much PFAS in seagulls as in fish, but they cannot say how much of it comes from the local pollution sources.

A hundred times higher

In addition to the fire-fighting training facility, airflows from the rest of the northern hemisphere are presumed to be the biggest source of PFAS pollution in Svalbard.

This was the conclusion drawn by Roland Kallenborn and his colleagues from NMBU, NILU and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in an article published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research in 2018.

At that time, the researchers did not find particularly high PFAS concentrations in seawater. On the other hand, the concentration of PFAS in melt water near the airports in Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund was up to 100 times higher than in other nearby locations.

Reduces the impact

“Generally speaking, the PFAS levels in freshwater are between low and ultra-low, and the seawater in the port areas is not very polluted. But there is significant local pollution from the fire drill areas in Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund,” the researchers conclude in their article.

NMBU is now working on a project led by the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (NGI) to study how the negative impact from PFAS can be reduced. The project has recently published an article in the journal Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts with the title The fate of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances in a marine food web influenced by land-based sources in the Norwegian Arctic.

“It again confirms that the main discharges in Longyearbyen take place at the airport,” says Kallenborn.

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