At the end of May, a group of scientists, engineers, and environmental managers from universities, government and private companies gathered at Queen's to discuss the cold, hard facts about a very particular aspect of the cold, hard ground. Now in it's seventh year, the goal of the Contaminants in Freezing Ground conference is to bring together people with both scientific and practical interests in cold-climate soils.
"The conference brings together people who are assessing and remediating contaminated sites in the North, whether (the contamination) is caused by mining, oil and gas development, or cold war defense sites," explains Peter Hodson of the Department of Biology and School of Environmental studies at Queen's. Hodson, who does research on oil toxicity to fish, was among conference presenters.
While past incarnations of the conference have been held in Cambridge, U.K, Hobart, Australia and Oslo, Norway, this year's gathering --attended by over 100 delegates -- was the first time it's been held at Queen's. It was organized and hosted by Queen's Analytical Services Unit.
The conference, which included sessions on everything from the re-vegetation of contaminated sites in the Arctic, to risk assessment and remediation of fuel spills in the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic, aims to "develop new science and technology for the responsible management, remediation, and prevention of contamination of soil and groundwater in regions with seasonal frost and permafrost."
Many of the north's most contaminated sites are the result of 1950s Cold War defense efforts, and include places like out-of-use radar stations. "The problem, " explains Hodson, "is that the electronics in those days were big, and relied on PCBs for heating and cooling. It meant that industrial chemicals were spilled in isolated areas as they decommissioned the equipment." The equipment was merely dumped on-site, with little thought given to its future impact. Heavy on-site pesticide use at some sites, along with fuel spills have only intensified the problem.
"The upshot is a string of contaminated sites -- including airports, oil, and gas developments," says Hodson. "The best management practices of 40-50 years ago are looked at with great fear today; we now realize that we made a mess!"
The challenge, of course, is in trying to cope with contaminated sites in areas where the ground is frozen. "You want to remediate it without melting it," Hodson says of the clean-up dilemma, citing problem areas like mountaintops, which have little soil and little capacity to absorb the contaminants. "And clean-up must be done in a climate that is harsh most of the year." In other words, remediation programs that might do the trick in other parts of the world, simply won't work in the north.
For Hodson, the advantages of holding this international conference at Queen's are clear. Besides showcasing the university's capabilities, the conference has also provided valuable exposure of students to a variety of ideas and researchers, and a chance to do some top notch networking. "Students can learn about job opportunities and future education options. It is really a major part of career building, and a wonderful opportunity to share or disseminate your own science."